Brain power

Leinster and the Crusaders linked up for a fascinating project during lockdown

The Irish province are viewing the next few months of games like a World Cup.

MOST COACHES AND rugby obsessives would love the opportunity to get behind the scenes with Leinster or the Crusaders, two of the best teams in the sport.

So imagine how fascinating those rugby nerds would have found being a fly on the wall when the two highly-successful set-ups came together in a series of information-sharing meetings during lockdown.

There have been countless rugby Zoom calls in recent months, but those between Leinster and the Crusaders sound like they might have been among the most interesting of them all.

stuart-lancaster Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster got in touch with the Crusaders initially. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster approached the three-time Super Rugby winners, whose head coach is the highly-rated Scott Robertson, several months ago and a series of calls between the two teams followed.

Intriguingly, Leinster analysed the Crusaders as if they were preparing to play them – picking out potential weaknesses and figuring out how they might negate strengths in each area of the game – while the Kiwi side did the same in return.

“It was over a month really with Zoom calls with the coaches,” explains Leinster assistant coach Robin McBryde.

“We presented on where we felt we could have exploited them and, similarly, they did the same to us the following week. It was great to share ideas and it was very open.

“It couldn’t have been more open as an exercise really and it certainly got us thinking as a coaching group and trying to implement one or two things that we took from that exercise.

“They’re a much-respected coaching team. There are certain links in there – you’ve got [former Wales international] Mark Jones, who I know pretty well, he’s coaching the defence there. There are other links as well behind the scenes. 

“I’m still in touch with Jason Ryan, their forwards coach. It’s great to share ideas and explore different ways of doing things.”

inpho_01497234 Crusaders boss Scott Robertson. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

As Welshman McBryde pointed out, there has been some discussion around a potential ‘World Club Cup’ at some point in the future. Lancaster is on the record supporting the idea of Leinster taking on the Crusaders, as an example, and McBryde agrees that would “certainly be interesting.”

That Leinster linked up with the Crusaders points to the fact that Leo Cullen’s side are doing everything in their power to improve. They had won every single game in the 2019/20 campaign before it was halted, but they see scope for getting better.

“We’re still striving for perfection, [even though] it’s pretty impossible,” says McBryde. “As someone has said in the past, you’ll never get perfection but excellence is about as close to that as what you’ll get.

“The game moves on as well. You always try and stay one or two steps ahead of everybody else with regards to which way the game is going, so it’s been interesting watching the games down in New Zealand and Australia.”

While they’ve been getting their fill of Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, Leinster’s coaches are now firmly looking forward to their own resumption of rugby, with the Pro14 clash against Munster now just over two weeks away. 

That battle at the Aviva Stadium on 22 August promises to be enthralling, with Leinster hopeful of building towards winning the 2019/20 Pro14 final on 12 September, a week before their much-anticipated 2019/20 Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens.

Intriguingly, Leinster are treating the delayed conclusion of the 2019/20 as something of a World Cup campaign, explains McBryde.

“We’re looking at it as a World Cup in terms of playing against different opposition of a very high standard, some quality opposition, over the first six weeks or so in particular.

robin-mcbryde Robin McBryde joined Leinster after the World Cup last year. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“You’re going straight into games where there are no second chances. We’ve got the two inter-provincial games, so that’s going to be mighty tough for us and we feel like we’ve got a bit of a target on our backs, everyone is going to be gunning for us.

“Then it’s going to be hopefully kicking on to the [Pro14] semi-final and final, then you’ve got the Champions Cup. There’s no place for any slip-ups so we’ve got to make sure we hit the ground running.”

Saracens have had plenty of movement in their squad this summer, with nine first-team players leaving, including England lock George Kruis, Wales wing Liam Williams, Wallabies enforcer Will Skelton, and Wales loosehead Rhys Carre.

Meanwhile, high-quality players like Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe, Alex Lozowski, and Nick Tompkins have departed on loan deals.

However, Mark McCall and co. have managed to retain world-class players such as Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers, Elliot Daly and Jamie George despite their relegation to the English Championship.

As such, Leinster will have a ferocious challenge on their hands in that European quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium on 19 September.

“They’re going to focus on the Champions Cup because I suppose they have unfinished business there,” says McBryde.

“I’m sure they’ll be targeting us, they want to prove a point and make a statement. They will be in good shape, they still have some quality players there. They have a lot of time to prepare for us so it will be a big challenge for us when it comes around.”

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