This is it then, the meat of the season for all the Irish provinces, and Leinster are no exception. After last Saturday’s clinical 40-5 win over Glasgow, the province welcomed their frontline internationals to training for the first of a wave derbies against Ulster at the RDS this Saturday (kick-off 7.35pm) which sandwich their first European game against Racing 92 on Saturday week, and their impact has been immediate according to Stuart Lancaster.
“It’s an exciting block and I really enjoy it, because obviously the internationals are back now you can see the intensity and tempo in training lift, the quality that has just come back into the building.
“Obviously, the lads that have been playing in the last block, the Scarlets game, the Glasgow game, the Chile game, they’re desperate to prove a point that they should still be in the team. Everything just went up 10 per cent today. That’s Monday, so we’ve still got ‘Stuesday’ to come,” he added wryly in reference to the players’ moniker in his honour.
While there were elements of Leinster’s performance against Glasgow which were rusty after the Nations Series hiatus, it has been another productive November for the province, featuring three new caps and three Leinster players named on the World Team of the Year, namely Jihnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier.
One of the three new internationals, Jimmy O’Brien, won three Tests in three different positions, and Lancaster said: “I was really confident in him. People will wonder where he’s come from, but he has been involved here for seven years.
“He must be 25,” added Lancaster, although actually O’Brien turned 26 on Sunday. “He’s not a young rugby player. He has played in big games for us in Europe and that’s the sort of progression you want to see. When I first arrived he was in the academy, then he benches for the league games, plays in leagues game, plays in Europe, gets called up for the Ireland squad and gets capped. Hugo is a good example as well of players who have gone through that route but Jimmy is such a skilful and composed player that I wasn’t worried about him.”
Another to emerge with reputation enhanced from the Nations Series was Ross Byrne after his call-up for a cameo from Test wilderness to kick the winning penalty against Australia, and carry that goalkicking form into the Glasgow game with unerring touchline conversions.
“As soon as he put the ball down I was absolutely confident that he would kick it. I was at the game, and I had no doubt he would kick it. Hopefully it leads to more opportunities for him, and his younger brother [Harry] is back as well so we have that sibling rivalry to deal with as well as Johnny wanting to come back as well.”
The Byrnes are likely to be the outhalves in the matchday squad against Ulster with Lancaster hopeful that Sexton will be fit for the Racing game.
“He’s making all the right noises and is aiming for that, he’s definitely not a million miles away at all. But he needs to get through this week in terms of the rehab in order to be available for next week, so he’s definitely not a million miles away.”
Lancaster is also “pretty optimistic” that Robbie Henshaw will return “early in the New Year” after undergoing minor wrist surgery while his hamstring also heals.
Charlie Ngatai is also a doubt after suffering a shoulder injury against Glasgow and Ciaran Frawley remains sidelined, Leinster still have options at inside centre, but James Lowe is in line for his seasonal return in next Saturday’s URC summit meeting and Jordan Larmour also back in training.
But for Leinster’s near perfect start - eight wins from eight, with six bonus points and 37 tries scored - Ulster’s form would have generated more attention. They’ve won six from seven, with five attacking bonus points and one losing bonus point, in scoring 34 tries, and trail Leinster by eight points with a game in hand.
“There’s no doubt that Ulster for me are going to be at the top end of the European Cup competition as well,” ventured Lancaster before reeling off virtually an entire Ulster XV.
“They’re all good players. They’re a very hard team to play against, a very difficult team to break down defensively. Their maul is very good, but if you overcommit to the maul, they’re very good at playing into space on the edges. They change direction well. There’s a lot to admire about them.
“For both of us, it’s almost the perfect game that we both need. One, we want to play against each other when the internationals are back and two, going into Europe as well. Obviously for the league table it’s pretty important as well, because if we can get the win it’s clear daylight. If they get the win, it narrows the gap.”