Lancaster stresses need for Leinster to roll with the punches and adapt

Irish province know all about La Rochelle but they still need to execute their gameplan

Sunday’s Premier League final round was many things, not least of all teams of spooked world-class players suffering from a nervous energy surplus. Manchester City going 2-0 down to Aston Villa before frantically pulling their season out of a car crash end showed how even the best can feel the brain fog and heavy legs.

Leinster probably know everything they need to know about La Rochelle for Saturday's Champions Cup final. But the biggest question they are asking this week is how well they know themselves and how dependable that knowledge is.

Beaten by La Rochelle in last year’s semi-final the desperate French team, who have never won the cup, against the well-schooled multiple winners will have their fault lines. The pressure will exploit them.

Senior coach Stuart Lancaster must also wait on whether Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe will come out of Tuesday's training sessions intact. Given the impact of the prop and winger, those outcomes will challenge plans.

“Tomorrow will be a big training day for us and Wednesday is off, so tomorrow is more of a decision-making day really,” says Lancaster kicking to touch on the pair.

But how the team react to the occasion, the expectation, the environment, the noise and the stress will be as defining as how the scrum performs or the lineout works. In fact, they may determine how well they work.

“It’s pressure, isn’t it,” says the former England coach. “It exists in all sports at the highest end. You draw on your own experience in terms of how to coach well in the week. Get that bit right, the bits we can control as coaches, making sure that we don’t overcomplicate things in the week of a game.

“You also draw on the player’s experience as well. It’s a very experienced playing group now and as I said we’ve won and we’ve lost along the way. We’ve won in France and lost in France. So, my experience I think counts for a lot as well in preparation.

“But nothing prepares you really until you walk out in front of 60,000 people in 28 degrees heat and suddenly you have massive bodies whacking into you. So, it’s rolling with the punches again, making sure you adapt within the game.”

An example of rolling with the punches arrived in Leinster’s semi-final match against Toulouse in Dublin. Leinster ripped into the game with phases of attacking play in the Toulouse half, when a grubber kick through was stopped by a leg and bounced kindly.

Toulouse scrumhalf Antoine Dupont gathered the ball deep and raced up the pitch to score a try against the run of play and entirely silence the stadium.

But Leinster didn’t stall, owned the error and saw it for what it was. They understood that to do what they were doing would provide the best outcome.

“Yeah, because find me a game where a team has played 10 out of 10. I mean, I’m struggling to think of one that I’ve been involved in,” says Lancaster.

“There’s always going to be that mistake or things that go your way or against you. Sometimes it’s the bounce of the ball or a referee decision. Sometimes it’s a yellow card on an instantaneous moment. So, you’ve got to be able to adapt and deal with those things.

“I thought we played La Rochelle last time we didn’t do that well enough and, as a consequence, they won the game so that’s obviously a big focus for us going into this game.”

Lancaster is not about to overlook Ronan O’Gara’s influence, but nor is he looking past the influence of Donncha Ryan in the forwards. They know what to expect from the big pack. They know what to expect from the giant centres.

“I think it’s not just Ronan,” he says. “Donnacha Ryan I’d say would have a huge impact on the forward group and the breakdown and how that’s been coached. You can’t fight on two fronts like they do and be successful without good coaching.

“Obviously they’ve got great players as well. They’re tough and they’re hard to beat. There’s very few teams that have beaten La Rochelle convincingly at all this season in any competition in any game. It’s a bloody good quality to have in any team.”

A phrase former Irish coach Eddie O’Sullivan was fond of using was “it all goes into the hopper.” Lancaster would agree and the product that comes out must be close to perfect. If Leinster are to beat the French team in a French stadium, it must come close to being flawless and maybe better than the semi-final performance against Toulouse.

“You obviously are always hoping for the 10 out of 10, and it never plays out that way,” he says. “But to win a final we’ve got to hit a good 8 or 9 out of 10 for sure.

“We were pleased to beat Leicester the way we did. We thought there were a fair amount of areas we could improve and if you had been in the review for Toulouse, you’d say the same thing. Even the Munster review this morning, again, you’d think we had lost.”

Leinster’s body of work is the season so far. Keep their heads and maybe Marseille won’t look like the Sunday’s Premiership and the last days of Rome.

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