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Dublin: 11°C Wednesday 21 October 2020

Lancaster confident well-rested Leinster will hit top gear on the big occasion

‘We’re confident in our ability to turn up and play in the big games.’

FOUR DAYS AND counting to the final we’ve all been waiting for. A seismic showdown between two European titans, an era-defining contest on the Toon. Build it up any way you want, there will be no shortage of storylines, sub-plots and fascinating match-ups to feast upon come Saturday evening.

But, for now, the countdown continues. Leinster have completed their main body of work, having had an intensive four-day preparation period last week, and yesterday’s ‘Stusday’ pitch session at Rosemount.

Stuart Lancaster Lancaster during training on Monday afternoon. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Leo Cullen’s squad will enjoy a day off today before Thursday’s final run-out and then Friday’s acclimatising captain’s run at St James’ Park, meaning we are now very much in the business end of Champions Cup final week.

It has been a long build-up and the next 72 hours will be particularly restless, one would suspect, for the players leading into the biggest game of their year, and indeed the northern hemisphere club season. 

With Leinster’s selection taking shape from early in the week, Cullen is hopeful of fielding an unchanged side for Saracens, meaning many of those who run out in blue come Saturday teatime will not have played since the semi-final win over Toulouse.

As was the case before Bilbao last year, bypassing the Pro14 quarter-finals granted Leinster a week off and they have had invaluable time together as a squad over the last fortnight to get their bodies and minds right for the challenge ahead.

“It certainly helped,” senior coach Stuart Lancaster said of the week’s break. “If I’m being honest, because we were so far ahead [in the Pro14] so early we lost a bit of momentum in the league with a few defeats and rotating the squad. I don’t like losing games so it was frustrating to lose those.

“But the bigger picture is to be top of your conference and have that weekend off. We saw how Munster and Treviso and Ulster and Connacht went at each other and the fact you would have had to do that had you been second in your conference would have made it really challenging to prepare for the Champions Cup final.

Saracens have done the same. They went to Wasps, won away from home and guaranteed themselves a home semi-final.

It means two fresh and fully locked and loaded teams are on a collision course for Newcastle, with the defending champions bidding to win a historic fifth crown.

Leinster, with four European titles in the last 10 years, have been one of the dominant forces in the competition in recent times, last year sweeping to their first crown since 2012 with nine straight victories.

Their title defence hasn’t been as faultless, as Cullen’s side lost to Toulouse in round two of the pool stages, with many feeling Leinster have not yet hit top gear this term, particularly after their narrow win over Ulster in the quarter-final. 

But Lancaster, speaking at Leinster HQ on Monday, was quick to point out the team’s performances in dismissing Wasps and Bath home and away in the pool stages, while also recording a statement win over Toulouse at the RDS in January, before defeating the French side in the last four. 

Saracens may have remained unbeaten en route to Newcastle this time around, but the eastern province are still the team to beat. 

“People have sort of looked back at the season and said ‘oh we haven’t quite fired on all cylinders’ but I go back to the point, we put 50-odd points on Wasps, we beat Bath by 40 points at the Aviva,” Lancaster says.

Stuart Lancaster Lancaster speaking to the media at UCD. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“These are big games and big moments. We’re confident in our ability to turn up and play in the big games. We’ve done it over the last couple of years.

“I thought we were more cohesive against Toulouse than we were against Ulster and there was a reason for that; getting the lads back after the Six Nations and some of the injuries we had in the lead up to that game. Those couple of weeks together definitely showed in the Toulouse performance and hopefully, it will show again. It’ll need to as Saracens, for me, are playing some outstanding rugby. Even when they’ve made changes, they’ve been relatively seamless.”

While Lancaster, knowing the English players as well as he does, was effusive in his praise for Mark McCall’s side, he added: “The team that scored the most tries in the Champions Cup and the league last year was us, this year we scored the most tries in the pool stages again.

“We scored 95 tries in the league, so we’ve got our own threats as an attacking unit. It’s the two best teams in the final. We’re a good attacking team, they’re a good attacking team. We’re pretty confident ourselves as well.”

During his time as England head coach, Lancaster gave Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode, Mako and Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and George Kruis their international debuts, so he will have no shortage of knowledge on their individual strengths and weaknesses. 

Wherever you look, both sides are festooned with world-class players and match-winners, the calibre of personnel and the strength of each collective only adding to the excitement ahead of this one.

“You’ve got to respect the quality of the performances that they’ve put in, it’s not just the results, they pretty much controlled the pool from the start,” Lancaster said of Sarries.

Two great wins, in the quarter-final, 50-odd points and 30-odd points in the semi-final. So, yeah, we know them well, I know them well obviously, know a lot of their players. The one thing I would say is that I think we’re in a similar position last year. We won six from six, quarter-final, semi-final and I think we got the lead in the final on 78 minutes and 30 seconds at 15-12, so, what happens in the lead up to a final and what happens in a final are two different things.

“We’re very respectful of what they can offer both as an attacking team but also as a defensive team as well. Their aerial threat, they’ve got world-class players in a lot of the positions and have a very good strong team spirit and work-ethic for each other.

“There is so little to choose between the teams in terms of positional matchups but also the evolution and strength of all of the squads, and that’s why I think it makes for such a fascinating encounter.”

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Ryan Bailey

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