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Dublin: 6 °C Monday 22 October, 2018

Leinster lay their credentials on the table, but Lancaster keen to keep expectations in check

The province will be without Rhys Ruddock for the return fixture with Exeter Chiefs, while Johnny Sexton is an injury doubt.

The Leinster huddle after Sunday's win at Sandy Park.
The Leinster huddle after Sunday's win at Sandy Park.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

LEINSTER ARE BUILDING a considerable head of steam, and rarely have they looked as capable and well-equipped to mount a compelling, multi-pronged challenge to reclaim Europe’s top prize as they have done so far this season.

Sunday’s controlled and clinical strangulation of Exeter Chiefs, the English champions who had gone 12 months unbeaten on home soil, was a considerable statement of intent from Leo Cullen’s side.

Tactically, it was a case of Leinster beating the Chiefs at their own game as they produced the perfect away-day performance; a combination of defensive defiance, set-piece aggression and pure bloody-mindedness to come out the right side of an almighty arm-wrestle.

As far as markers go, three wins from three and a six-point buffer in the pool is quite a start.

“We achieved the win by playing a different style to what Leinster have probably been renowned for, and that was the pleasing thing,” says Stuart Lancaster.


“You don’t go into a game with one single gameplan, what you want to be able to do is give the players the tools to be adaptable within the game,” he continues.

“So, if Exeter perhaps defended differently then perhaps we would have played in a different way.

“But the way the defended, without contesting the ruck as we thought they would, then it was right to go play around the edges there and try make yards that way.

“There wasn’t a lot of space in the frontline because they put so many men near there, but equally if they did something different I’d like to think we would have played differently.

“So, it’s using the right tool in the box at the right times, and that what makes good teams, and I think we were guilty last year, I think, sometimes of overplaying, and playing in the wrong areas of the field, which cost us on occasions, like in the Pro12 semi-final against Scarlets.

“So I thought it was a far better and more composed performance from us in being adaptable to the weather and the environment away from home.”

Stuart Lancaster Lancaster stressed the need for Leinster to progress further this week. Source: Inpho

So, where does it rank in terms of performances since you arrived at Leinster?

“Yeah, I mean obviously it was a good performance,” Lancaster replies. “Conceding the try still rankles me, and at 8-8 it could have gone in two different directions.

“We, fortunately, got control at that point and you know, that try was critical, to go through 44 phases and the way controlled the ball in that area of the field, without giving a penalty away or knocking the ball on in difficult conditions when you’ve got big defenders coming in hard.

“But I still think that there is a lot more improvement in us because I know there is a lot improvement in them.”

Lancaster is clearly incensed by the manner in which Leinster allowed the Chiefs back into the game not long into the second period. He brings it up twice.

“It still frustrates me now as I think about it.”

James Tracy’s lineout wobble resulted in a scrum, from which Exeter turned the screw and won a penalty. Gareth Steenson kicked to touch and the Chiefs unleashed their devastating attacking game for the first time, their coast-to-coast score, involving Henry Slade, Olly Woodburn and finisher James Short, one of real quality.

Leinster were pulled apart, and it still irks Lancaster.

“A catalogue of things went wrong really,” he says.

“Little things along the way that we know how to fix. I was disappointed we conceded it.”

Work to do, then.

And Lancaster refers to Leinster’s December double against Northampton Saints four years ago as the cautionary tale in all this; an emphatic victory away from home was quickly undone by defeat at the Aviva Stadium a week later.

Leinster expect a backlash on Saturday, they’ll need to up their game again.

“Things can change very quickly and one of my messages to the Leinster boys this week is, and I wasn’t here at the time, but I remember watching Leinster beat Northampton at Northampton and then losing at the Aviva the following week so a lot can happen in a week.

“An unbelievable Leinster performance away from home and they lost in the Aviva and suddenly the other team were back in the mix.

“Looking back on it, Leinster got out of the pool but that one result probably gave them the away game against Toulon. So every point counts and we need to be ready for what I know Exeter will bring because I know the team and the coaches well.

“There’s a huge value on these games in that regard because your motivation, your desire to improve your performance on the back of a loss, it gives you huge motivation as a team.

Dave Kearney, Stuart Lancaster and Dan Leavy Lancaster was speaking at the BOI Leinster Schools Cup draws last night. Source: Inpho

“Exeter are too well coached and too tight as a group, too strong to break in that regard. They will 100 percent back themselves because of their track record.

“They’ve won the Premiership, they’ve won two out of two in Europe, they beat Montpellier away from home, they’re a quality team. One setback won’t distract them going into this game.”

Leinster might have to do without Johnny Sexton, too. His quad is giving him some bother and with such a short turnaround before the reverse fixture, it will be tight.

“He’ll train later in the week,” is Lancaster’s update.

Rhys Ruddock’s hamstring problem is a little more serious, the flanker set to be ruled out for Leinster’s busy festive period at least. The scan results are expected later today.

“He’ll be a while.”

At least Cullen can fill that void by promoting Josh van der Flier from the bench or recalling Dan Leavy, who has now recovered from the hamstring he tweaked in Ireland camp.

But losing Sexton is entirely different, even if Ross Byrne has deputised competently.

“I think, for me, he’s playing at the top of his game,” Lancaster says of Sexton. “When I say the top of his game, that takes him into a world class category.”

Leinster are at the top of their game, too. But even with their credentials now firmly on the table on the back of three big performances, Lancaster is keen to temper expectations. This is only the halfway stage, remember.

“I’m reasonably objective really, because I know what it takes to win at the highest level, and I’ve been involved in games where we’ve won at the highest level, and been involved in teams that have lost,” he adds.

“So, to win the European Cup, to win in our pool, we will be playing at the top end of European rugby, which is not far off international rugby. So, we’re three games in and things could change very quickly this weekend.

“If Exeter have a great win, if Montpellier have a great win, if we didn’t win then suddenly the whole picture is completely different.”

Bank of Ireland has announced a five-year extension of their sponsorship of Leinster Rugby through to the 2023 season. The partnership encompasses all Leinster Rugby activity, from the professional team right through to grassroots community, club and schools level. 

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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