Lancaster confident over fitness of Leinster outhalves as Toulon test looms large
Senior coach praises influence of in-form Robbie Henshaw ahead of Champions cup clash
Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw runs away from Munster’s Damian de Allende during the Guinness Pro 14 Final at the RDS. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Stuart Lancaster has signed a contract extension with Leinster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Monday’s outhalf crisis at Leinster lasted all of a couple of hours. Just enough time to allow Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne turn up to training and demonstrate that Toulon and the Champions Cup last 16 is firmly fixed as their focal point this week.
Early reports of Sexton having to go through return to play protocols along with concern for the knee of Byrne had begun to bubble, with the younger Byrne, Harry, on everyone’s lips. However, Stuart Lancaster stepped up to hastily tamp down any talk of a growing situation.
“I’m pretty confident they’ll be fine. Johnny is flying through the protocols. It wasn’t a particularly big incident. He got a bang on the nose,” said the former England coach.
“Ross trained today. So, he had a bang and there was a bit of a doubt about whether he would train, but he trained and he was fine. We’re pretty confident both will be available That said, if Harry is available, we’d be fine with him. But we’re pretty confident.”
For lock James Ryan and number eight Caelan Doris, there is less certainty about the time frame for their return. But there is optimism and a question of when rather than if they will soon be back playing. Both suffered head injuries.
“It’s a hard one to give you a definitive, and I’m not being evasive, that’s just the reality,” said Lancaster. “You want to make sure that they’re fully ready to come back in and that everything has settled down cognitively, I guess, is the word.
“I said it last time and I don’t want to pre-empt it, but I do feel confident that they’re both in the right hands, in the right shape and moving in the right direction. It won’t be next week but hopefully it won’t be a million miles away either.”
Lancaster promises more changes to the team that beat Munster in the Pro 14 final. He, like everyone else, has also been smitten by the terrific form of centre Robbie Henshaw, who has become a leading force for the other players to follow.
As much as deft touches, his power game will also have to show against a very physical Toulon side, albeit one that will probably be without Ma’a Nonu, who was sent off last week against Lyon.
“His [Henshaw] talent has begun to shine not just within Ireland but within the northern hemisphere,” said Lancaster. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if there was a Lions team picked now that he’d be the first name in the backline for sure because of how well he’s playing. I was just chatting to one of the players today about how rewarding it is that he has come back in such good form and so confident.”
Respectful of Munster, he is aware that they will have to employ a different game and a different level of pace and accuracy to beat the French side. But that, he said, is Leinster’s game anyway.
Saracens exposed them last season in the quarter-final, so he is not unaware of the need for the team to hum. He concedes the Saracens disappointment is a motivation. But it is not the motivation. The motivation is Toulon.
“You can’t get distracted by what you did last week against Munster or what happened against Saracens,” he said. “You learn the lessons. But you refocus and reset to zero every time you play the next game. So, it’s irrelevant what we did against Munster.
“The mindset has to be similar, in that I thought against Munster we played to space well, we moved the ball around. We got good balance between that driving game, the carrying game of the forwards and moving the ball.
“We didn’t nail the execution and that’s one of the big feedbacks. You’ve got to try and keep the ball alive. We’re at our best when we play a dynamic, fast, high-tempo game. We’re hard to deal with.”
Attractive to deal with too. Recently Lancaster signed on for a further two years with Leinster. Despite the weekly commute to Leeds, where his family have remained, he has committed. He is now in his fifth year. Like everything he does, it is clear in his mind why he is staying.
“Someone said to me once: ‘The definition of a good environment is that good people want to come and people want to stay longer and if they stay, they need to say it’s the best time in my career’. One, I wanted to come; two, I’ll probably stay longer than was in my mind when I first arrived.” And so he proved.