James Lowe in line to start for Leinster in Champions Cup final
Lancaster optimistic Sean Cronin will be fit for showdown with ‘threatening’ Saracens
Leinster’s James Lowe celebrates after his side’s victory over Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster’s three-into-two conundrum in having to omit one of their “non-EU” players appears to have already been resolved for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final against Saracens at St James’s Park.
Jamison Gibson-Park’s hamstring injury is not expected to clear up this week according to senior coach Stuart Lancaster, thus satisfying the clarion call for James Lowe’s inclusion after his semi-final performance against Toulouse.
“I think the equation might work itself if Jamison Gibson-Park isn’t available,” admitted the senior coach, who ventured that the scrumhalf is unlikely to be available for the final.
“But he [Lowe] is one of many players, I’d say, in the Leinster backline or in the Leinster side who I think can cause trouble to any team,” added Lancaster, reminding us that Leinster have been the leading try scorers in the pool stages for the last three seasons, and have scored 95 tries in the Pro14 this season.
“You don’t score the number of tries we’ve scored by playing conservatively. That said, you’ve got to hit the right balance. So whether it’s James Lowe or Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose or Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath, any of those backs, Rob Kearney from 15, bringing him into the game more than we have done recently, I think they’re all part of the equation for us.
“And we go back to the quarter-final last year when we beat them in the Aviva, it took us a long time to break them down but we got there in the end. So it’s not just about James Lowe, that’s for sure, but he’s definitely an asset.”
Lowe actually has the best strike rate of the above, with 20 tries in his 27 games for Leinster to date. Furthermore, that strike rate is even fractionally higher in Europe – six tries in eight games.
Recalling also his performance in the quarter-final win over Saracens last season, when he powered over for Leinster’s match-clinching third try, Lowe would surely have started anyway.
Sean Cronin, the tournament’s joint leading try scorer this season with six, has been sidelined since the semi-final with a calf injury but the hooker should be available for Saturday.
“We’re optimistic,” said Lancaster, forecasting that Cronin would do unit sessions yesterday and take part in today’s session. “If it all goes well then he should be able to train properly on Thursday, so we’re definitely confident in him.”
Rhys Ruddock, who captained the side to the pool wins over Toulouse and Wasps, and the quarter-final against Ulster, withdrew before the semi-final after feeling unwell. But he has come through the graduated return to play protocols and will return to full training this week.
Scott Fardy started at blindside flanker in his stead, and whoever starts, Leinster will have added impact off the bench, a prerequisite to match Saracens.
Having given English test debuts to Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode, Mako and Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and George Kruis, Lancaster admitted: “I’d know them all well. Those young players came through at Saracens, ended up getting capped by England, and are now seasoned internationals/Lions. They’ve played together in a Saracens team that’s lost together, but also gone on to win together.”
Noting that Saracens could conceivably start the same pack which played against Clermont in the final two seasons ago, and much of the backline, he added: “They’ve been together a long time now; there’s a lot of experience in that team.”
Asked if this was the greatest one-off challenge in club rugby, Lancaster said: “Every game feels like that when you get to this level. Toulouse felt like that in the semi-final. You see what they’ve done in the Top14 and you’re thinking ‘jeez if we don’t get our defence sorted here, we won’t be making the final’. So I don’t think you put a score on it, if you like, and say ‘this is the biggest one’.
“In the context of both teams, it’s the biggest game of the season without a doubt, by a country mile, because it’s the Champions Cup final and it’s the two best teams in the final.”
Saracens have won all their pool games, akin to Leinster last season. But nonetheless Isa Nacewa only kicked them in front after 78 minutes and 30 seconds. “So what happens prior to the final is not irrelevant, but it’s what happens on the day that will ultimately decide it.”
Asked what is particularly challenging from a coach’s perspective, Lancaster repeated, with a wry chuckle. “Most things. They’ve a very good defence. It’s very well coached and disciplined.
“They’re very good at playing the patient game and building pressure on the opposition. Owen’s a world-class kicker, so if you’re ill-disciplined, they’ll build three/six/nine points. They’re happy to play the territory game, they’ve got patience there, but in attack I think they’ve really improved the quality of their starter plays and they’ve got the ability to play a power game, and also with two very good ball players in Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, they can kill you in the unstructured part of the game as well.
“So you can see how well coached and well organised they are. You’ve got to be good at everything. We’ve got to be able to defend their threats – obviously the aerial threat – but equally we have to impose a Leinster game on to their defence as well.”