HOW DO YOU get better after a double-winning campaign?
It’s a question that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster were asking themselves as soon as the dust began to settle on their Guinness Pro14 and Champions Cup successes in 2017/18.
While many of the foundations from last season’s victories will remain in place in the upcoming season, Leinster are also keen to shake things up. Standing still is the same as moving backwards in rugby, so goes the thinking.
This summer’s pre-season has seen Leinster’s coaching staff throwing completely new training games and drills at their players.
There has been a focus on revamping the team’s attacking shape in a bid to ensure they score more tries this season, while the defence has come in for critical appraisal too.
To set the tone, Lancaster sat the players down on the first day of pre-season and showed them footage of some of the tries Leinster conceded last season.
“It was a very humbling start to the year,” said number eight Jack Conan at an eir Sport event yesterday. “Even some of the scores we conceded in September last year were referred to.”
Giving up fewer maul tries, basic set-ups in defence, a desire to make better decisions on when to offload the ball – Leinster are focusing on little changes that can make a big difference in the season ahead.
While Joe Tomane is the only new addition to the playing squad, Cullen and Lancaster have introduced a couple of fresh faces to their coaching team in their bid to be better.
Felipe Contepomi’s return to the province as backs coach has been warmly welcomed and much discussed, but the promotion of Hugh Hogan to the role of ‘contact skills coach’ is an intriguing move too.
Former St. Mary’s captain Hogan had already worked with Leinster’s senior side on their tackling skills last season but his expanded role will also include work around ball-carrying and rucking.
Pre-season has seen Hogan – an elite player development officer with Leinster up until now – working hard to improve Leinster’s players’ ability to tackle on their inside shoulders, as well as focusing on the team’s ruthlessness when defending inside their 22.
“With our defensive work-ons, a lot of it was down to our collision-winning in defence,” said Conan of Hogan’s work.
“There is a huge onus to make sure we are missing less tackles and collisions, make sure we are dominating, making more impacts. That will give us confidence and it makes the game a hell of a lot easier when you are winning big collisions.”
While winning the collisions is important, Conan explained that training to do so doesn’t involve smashing each other.
“It’s not massively physical, we’re not going out killing each other,” said Conan. “It’s small things about technique; it’s about making things become second nature for people, getting those little cues in your head – not to just lunge in, to chop your feet, get your foot in nice and close, all your weight is behind you when you’re making a hit and you can dominate that collision.
“You need to do it so much that it becomes second nature to you, it’s building those motor pathways and being so used to it.”
Leinster’s technical defensive focus is based around making them a more effective team, but safety is also an element of it.
With rugby increasingly focused on lowering tackle height in order to reduce the number of head injuries occurring, technique is vital.
“The way the game is going now, everyone is so conscious about the tackle height,” said Conan. ”There are massive arguments about whether it should be chest high, shoulder high.
“If we can remove the ambiguity and make sure we’re so on the level, and there’s no final where someone makes a tackle a little too high and we end up losing… if we practice through the year, make sure we get nice and low, and not giving teams easy access into the game, there’ll be no easy out for a big team.”
Contact skills are only one small part of Leinster’s work in pre-season but this area is a prime example of the ways in which they’re looking to get better, even after such a remarkable season.
With coaches as forward-thinking as Cullen and Lancaster involved, Leinster were never likely to rest on their laurels this season.
Lancaster has been showing his players clips of the Crusaders’ Super Rugby-winning campaign in the search for ways to improve.
“He looks at everything,” said Conan. “He was saying he’d love a chance to play against them, to see how the best in Europe would go against the best in the south.”
There was great pride in putting a fourth European star on the Leinster jersey this summer, but there is space for more.
“Nobody will say, ‘Ah we’re grand, we won last year, we’re not bothered this year.’” said Conan.
“I spoke to Stuart after the European final and he said, ‘The drive to five starts now. The road to the fifth begins right now, that’s what we’ll look to next, because this is done and dusted.’
“In his head, he’d already flicked the switch and was on to the next one.”
Jack Conan was speaking at the eir Sport announcement that its first broadcast, Cardiff Blues v Leinster, will be made free-to-air to celebrate the channel becoming the new home of rugby in Ireland. Fans can watch the game in high definition on eir Sport 1 without a subscription, while the game will also be available on eir Sport’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
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