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'With these players, I don't see why the Irish teams can't be at the top European table'

Stuart Lancaster knows the size of the task facing Leinster but feels the province are in a good position to go one better than last year.

WITH MEMORIES OF Wasps and that disastrous campaign still hanging over them, Leinster entered last year’s Champions Cup pool stages with a touch of suspicion only to get off to an ideal start at home to Castres.

Scott Fardy celebrates defending a scrum with Sean Cronin and Cian Healy Leinster head into Saturday's game against Montpellier off the back of an interpro win over Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That bonus-point victory, built on the province’s set-piece dominance, laid the foundations for a hugely encouraging and progressive European odyssey which saw Leo Cullen’s men eventually fall at the semi-final hurdle to Clermont.

That defeat hurt and still wrangles with many of the senior players and coaching staff as a shocking start cost them dearly in Lyon — but any demons had been banished and a return to the business end of the competition engenders genuine hope this time around.

Leo Cullen admitted as much at the Champions Cup launch a fortnight ago when he said the doom and gloom which hung over the provinces this time last year has now lifted and there is a real sense that his side, as well as Munster and Ulster, can compete on this stage again.

The Leinster head coach was incidentally the last Irishman to lift the biggest prize in European club rugby back in 2012 with the blue-riband trophy remaining in either France or England for the last five seasons.

As preparations step up a gear for this weekend’s opening pool fixtures, the mood in the Leinster camp couldn’t be any starker in contrast to this corresponding week 12 months ago when expectations were unsurprisingly low.

Stuart Lancaster’s arrival as senior coach was certainly a factor in Leinster’s European resurgence as they progressed to the last four alongside Munster, and the Englishman firmly believes there is no reason why expectations shouldn’t be high again.

“My expectations were high last year and I think the expectation should be there for the Irish teams because there is four quality teams,” he said.

“With the players who play for them, I don’t see why the Irish teams can’t be at the top in European table.

Senior coach Stuart Lancaster Lancaster speaking to the media in UCD on Monday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I think we are in a similar position [to last year] leading into the game. This time last year, if you remember, the Lions players had played two/three games by now whereas this year the Lions players have only played one or two games so we are probably a bit more down the line in terms of match fitness, let’s call it that, but I think they are all pretty fit and it is just we are more experienced.

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“The Clermont game taught us a lot about winning in Europe and the maybe different mentality at the breakdown. I am pleased Wayne Barnes is refereeing the game [v Montpellier], I think he is a very good referee, I think he will be very good on those elements of the game which will hopefully surface and it will serve us well.”

Just like last term, Leinster open their campaign against Top 14 opposition in the form of a powerful and well-funded Montpellier side who are now coached by Vern Cotter.

The size of the challenge awaiting Leinster cannot be underestimated with Montpellier’s gargantuan pack and the 8, 9 and 10 axis of Louis Picamoles, Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden meaning there are some seriously powerful combinations in there.

But Lancaster and Leinster know what they need to do to stop the French side in their tracks having also faced them in the pool stages last year; keep the ball in hand for as long as possible, thus reducing the opportunity Montpellier have to cause damage from unstructured play, and then get in their face defensively by bursting quickly off the line.

“It is a very powerful side and a lot of it is based on a driving line-out and physicality,” he said of Leinster’s first Pool 3 opponents.

Luke McGrath Leinster beat Montpellier at the RDS en route to the semi-finals last year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They have got threats, people perceive their threats as just up front but if you look at Nadolo for instance and the try he scored in the away game last year, they use that driving maul to suck in the defenders and use the width because they have got very good passers in 10 and 12 in Cruden and Francois Steyn and they have very powerful wingers.

“So they play with a lot more width than people give them credit for and certainly their performance away from home caused us more problems when we played over there and lost, their attacking game caused more problems than any other team in any other pool game without a doubt.

“So there is a slight myth that they are big and powerful and just try and rumble over you because they don’t. You layer on Cruden’s kicking game and Pienaar’s kicking game and it makes them a very, very complete team.”

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