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To sum up why Leinster have been head and shoulders above the rest in Europe this season, and why they head into Saturday’s Champions Cup final against La Rochelle as favourites, Stuart Lancaster provides the perfect example.
I worked with Stuart during his time with England and his abilities as a coach, first and foremost, were obvious. The problem was he inherited a team that, from a PR and a sporting perspective, had failed at the 2011 World Cup. He took it upon himself to try to change everything, from ensuring the players reconnected with supporters, to overhauling all facets of a team who had underperformed by going out in the quarter-finals.
It was his first international job and it speaks volumes about his character that he wanted to take it all on himself. Ultimately, that proved too big a challenge but the reason why he is proving so successful with Leinster, where he is responsible for shaping the attack, is that he has taken all that experience and channelled it into just one aspect of the club. It typifies what Leinster are about – so many good individuals focusing on doing their specific job very well and the ripple effect is the synchronicity of how they play. It makes them such a difficult opponent to stop.
It sounds simple, but they have brilliant players, brilliant coaches and an infrastructure that allows them to be the best version of themselves. When I say infrastructure, I mean a setup that enables their first team to stay at home rather than go to South Africa for United Rugby Championship fixtures. Spending that time working on unit skills, recovery, cohesion – you cannot overestimate how much good that does for a team. They effectively go into these mini pre-seasons where they are finessing everything all over again and it’s plain and obvious to see when they get back into competitive rugby. You’ve only got to look at the two No 15s. Jordan Larmour was the new kid on the block, Billy Whizz, and then he got injured and you’ve got Hugo Keenan who was one of the standout players in the Six Nations. It is a real incubator of talent.
I played in the Premiership for 14 years and during that time you did all your skills work and your team units work, or the majority of it, in pre-season. Then you try to top it up as you go, while trying to remain fresh, going Saturday-Saturday-Saturday. It was incredibly difficult but Leinster have so many weeks when they can rest, recover and hone their skills and craft. When I look at their pack, I can’t think of another set of forwards in the club game with so many ball-playing and ball-carrying options. That is a clear product of the work they do in those mini pre-seasons.
By contrast, the French calendar is relentless. The fact that Victor Vito is absent for the final, having picked up an injury in a must-win league match against Stade Français last week, is a case in point. In the URC, Leinster don’t have that concern. It would be disrespectful to call it a second team because it was still littered with international players and they still came out victorious, but the fact they could rest the side who line up in Marseille against Munster last week is an obvious advantage. I can’t emphasise enough that I’m not saying that is the only reason for their success, just that it provides them with the environment in which to flourish. As an Englishman who played in the Premiership for so long I can only applaud how Ireland have set up their structure to enable that.
There is a bit of doom and gloom about English clubs in Europe at the moment but I believe it’s too early to see it as a long-term decline, whether due to the salary cap reduction or anything else. Rugby can be very cyclical and rather than the Premiership’s demise, I see the European competitions mirroring what we are seeing at international level at the moment. Three French clubs and one Irish team in the two finals reflects how those two national sides were a cut above during this year’s Six Nations. That doesn’t happen overnight, it requires the pillars for success to be put in place and Ireland and France have managed to achieve that.
I was listening to Pep Guardiola talking about the England football team recently. He was reflecting on how they’ve got to the semi-finals of a major tournament, then a final in which they lost on penalties and predicted that once they finally get over the hurdle, they will have something intangible that makes them think they can go on to win many more. In essence, defeats sting but they help to develop character and Leinster are a prime example of that given how difficult it was for them to win their first European title in 2009.
They’ve had some chastening defeats since then, none more so than losing the 2019 final against Saracens and they were overpowered by La Rochelle in last season’s semi-final. While that will add a sense of fuel, they don’t want to be haunted by those losses. This match has to be about excitement and achievement and they have players who have been part of their previous victories in this side to help in that sense. On the day, that might just be the most important factor.