Leinster starting to heat up as season gets serious at Christmas

Champions Cup opens with visit of Bath before attention turns to festive derbies

Tadhg Furlong and Leinster are building for the visit of Bath on Saturday. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

Tadhg Furlong and Leinster are building for the visit of Bath on Saturday. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

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Leinster arrive at their first key juncture of their season, the opening salvos of the Champions Cup, perhaps not quite at the same pitch as they have reached previously.

There was the scratchy 7-6 win away to the Dragons and a first loss at home to Ulster in over eight years, compounding other home defeats in 2021 to Connacht, Ospreys and Munster. Yet last Friday’s 47-19 win over Connacht was their fifth bonus point win out of six. They still lead the URC table. If this is a relatively slow-burning start to the campaign, any other club would take it.

Like Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster talks of the need for more cohesion and going up another gear, as is usually the case in the early stages of the season.

“It happens at the start of the year, you’re rushing to get boys back in and then they go away to Ireland camp and you bring them back in, it does take a bit of time to get that really unconscious habit when you deliver really top end performances. And with an ever-changing team, the challenge for me in the coaching environment is to give them enough reps so that the coaching team becomes truly cohesive.

“But that said, we’ve lost, what, one game, we’ve had some great wins, we started the season well in pre-season, we had a good win against the English champions. So we’re not a million miles away.

“I’m not sitting here thinking we’re miles off. I actually thought people don’t give Connacht the credit they deserve for how good they are as a team.

“They had beaten Ulster pretty easily, they probably should have beaten Munster and they’re an excellent attacking team, so to put 47 points on them, albeit we conceded 19, was exactly the type of game we needed on the back of a five week break in the lead up to Europe.”

Leinster kick-off their pursuit of a fifth star at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 3.15pm) against Bath, who are propping up the Premiership table after losing all nine games, before a difficult assignment on Friday week against the Challenge Cup holders Montpellier, who have risen to third in the Top 14 on the back of five successive wins.

With just the two return fixtures to come in January after the festive derbies, it’s more of a sprint to secure one of the top eight places in the two groups of 12 and reach the two-legged round of 16.

But, essentially, nothing changes either.

Stuart Lancaster says Leinster are not ‘a million miles away’ as the Champions Cup gets underway. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho
Stuart Lancaster says Leinster are not ‘a million miles away’ as the Champions Cup gets underway. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

“It is different, but the motivation for us always remains the same in that we want to do as well as we can in the pool stages, get as many points as we can to get the advantage of a home game in the last-16 second, so you play away and then at home, the greater chance of a home quarter-final, and a home semi-final.

“For us it always been in my time here at Leinster, whether it was six games or four games in a pool, there has not been many games we lost along the way. Sometimes it’s been five (win) from six, generally it’s been to win home and away.”

Options

Leinster, invariably, also felt the biggest brunt from Ireland’s Autumn Series, and while Jamison Gibson-Park is back in full training and in the mix for this Saturday, the game is likely to come too soon for Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan and James Ryan. But they do have options.

“It’s not bad to have Caelan Doris as an option at number eight to be fair,” admitted Lancaster wryly. “You’ve got Ross (Byrne) and Harry (Byrne) and Ciaran Frawley and Garry (Ringrose) and Robbie (Henshaw), so we’ve got options.

“I think the trick for us is to build on the Connacht performance, get the cohesion that we want, and deliver that at home on Saturday in front of our home fans. The other lads will come back in the mix towards the end of the week. It’s not a bad couple of additions to add to your squad because you’re then playing away in France, and to have Johnny, Jack and James Ryan potentially available, that will make a difference.”

Leinster will be the warmest of favourites against a team struggling as Bath are domestically. But while there is a risk of “subconscious complacency because the boys would never consciously be complacent”, but not, says Lancaster, in a European week. “You can feel the difference in the environment already today.”

He knows the Bath coaching ticket well and they’ll be hurting.

“Sometimes when the shackles are off, the pressure of the Premiership is gone, they could come and think they’re going to have a great day out in Dublin and let’s try and give it a lash.

“What drives us really is us and our performance and knowing we played well against Connacht but we can improve on that. And it’s also the first time we’ve had all our lads back from the Ireland squad. We’ll definitely be focused on us but I’ll be giving Bath as much attention in terms of preview and insight as I can, because I want us to be prepared and play well.”

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