Leinster head coach Leo Cullen and senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Ben Brady/INPHO
Drive For Five

Lancaster: 'We've got to hit a good 8 or 9/10 to win the Champions Cup final'

The Leinster coach says injured pair Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe are ‘moving in the right direction’ ahead of Saturday’s final in Marseille.

THE FIRST QUESTION put to Stuart Lancaster is the obvious one. As Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final creeps into view, how confident are Leinster of having both Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe available for selection?

“It’s taken a while for them to get back moving again, but they are moving in the right direction,” says Lancaster.

“Not fully confirmed yet, but they are moving in the right direction. But Tuesday will be a big training day for us and Wednesday is off, so Tuesday is more of a decision-making day really.”

Lowe is nursing a shin injury picked up in the dying moments of the semi-final win over Toulouse, while Furlong limped out in the first half of the same game with an ankle issue. Both players are set to step up their training loads this week ahead of Saturday’s showdown with La Rochelle.

“He’s got to be right,” Lancaster added of Furlong.

“It’s very hard for a tighthead prop to go into a scrum if you are not right. He needs to be right. It’s position specific sometimes for these things, but he has to be right to put him in because it will compromise our chances, never mind his chances, of doing well.”

charlie-higgins-with-tadhg-furlong Furlong is due to step up his training this week. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Both are hugely influential players in a Leinster team which seems to be peaking at the perfect time, the province swatting aside Connacht, Leicester Tigers and Toulouse across the knockout stages to book their place in this weekend’s decider against La Rochelle, the team that stopped Leinster’s drive for a fifth European title in the semi-finals last season.

“I mean, obviously it’s important to play your best game in the final,” Lancaster continues.

You saw in the World Cup in 2019, South Africa played their best game in the final and won the final. Yeah, you can talk about it but until the actual final starts itself, it’s only then when you truly know where your group is. You’ve got to prepare for every eventuality, both in terms of circumstances on the field but also the environment which surrounds the game as well. 

“You’re trying to paint a picture in the players’ minds of what the stadium will look and feel alike. What the 28 degrees will feel like. What the 60,000 people feel like and you’re hoping to use that to prepare them, but also for them to draw on their experiences themselves because when it comes down it, it’s 15 players vs 15 players. 

“We’ve got to do our job early in the week and the players have to drive it on and we’re lucky that we’ve got an experienced group that can do that, but equally this experienced group have also had some pain along the way as well, and you draw on that.” 

uini-atonio-celebrates-after-gregory-alldritt-scores-a-try La Rochelle came out on top in last year's semi-final. Dave Winter / INPHO Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

La Rochelle have different experience to lean into. The French side have yet to win a Champions Cup title, but tasted defeat at the hands of Toulouse in last year’s final. Their head coach, Ronan O’Gara, certainly has an understanding of what it takes to get over the line, having won the competition twice during his playing days with Munster.

This weekend he’s hoping to get his hands on the trophy for the first time as a coach.

“I’ve not coached against his (O’Gara’s) teams too many times, but from the outside looking in, certainly at La Rochelle, they’re well organised defensively,” Lancaster says.

“I think he had a big role involved in coaching defence in Crusaders. So, that’s example number one of what he would bring. He would obviously put a big store on the back field and the kicking game and the accuracy with which they play in those areas. The breakdown. I think it’s not just Ronan. Donnacha Ryan I’d say would have a huge impact on the forward group and the breakdown and how that’s been coached.

I think collectively their coaching team do a very good job. You can’t fight on two fronts like they do and be successful without good coaching. Obviously they’ve got great players as well. They’re tough and they’re hard to beat. There’s very few teams that have beaten La Rochelle convincingly at all this season in any competition in any game. 

“If that’s the quality that Ronan brings, it’s a bloody good quality to have in any team and then layer on the set-piece starters and the KBA (keep ball alive) and ability to keep the ball alive and play in the outside channels. It’s a real successful formula, slightly different from Leinster but it’s still successful. That’s the beauty of rugby, isn’t it?”

Most observers see Leinster as hot favourites given the way in which they’ve blitzed their way to this stage of the season, but as Lancaster is keen to stress, finals have a tendency to take on a life of their own.

“You obviously are always hoping for the 10/10, and it never plays out that way, but to win a final we’ve got to hit a good 8 or 9/10 for sure to win this game, I’m envisaging.

“We were pleased to beat Leicester the way we did. We thought there were a fair amount of areas we could improve on, and if you had been in the review for Toulouse you’d say the same thing. Even the Munster review this morning, again, you’d think we had lost. 

“So it’s about setting the standards high, and high as you can as a coach, and making sure the players aim to achieve that. I think if you constantly have that as your mindset, then you should get more consistent at playing well in the biggest games. 

“There is no guarantee, lots of things can happen in a game, something can happen in the first minute and it changes the dynamics for the rest of the 80 minutes.

“So we’re not really in control of the outcome, but all you can do is prepare them as well as you can, and I can say with confidence that we’ve done that this season, we’ve done that throughout the season, we’re in good shape going into the final, and we’re looking forward to it.”  

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