Stuart Lancaster believes last 16 ties will ignite Champions Cup in April

Lancaster confident that quartet of Leinster players will be fit for Ireland’s Six Nations campaign

Stuart Lancaster watches Leinster’s training session at UCD on Monday. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

Stuart Lancaster watches Leinster’s training session at UCD on Monday. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

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Stuart Lancaster is very confident that the quartet of injured Leinster players who will link up with the Irish squad this week – Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier and Jordan Larmour – will be fit for their opening Six Nations game against Wales next Saturday week.

“From what I’ve heard, Jordan’s fine, Josh, I saw him yesterday and he seemed okay, James is making great progress and Tadhg the same. So I think they fly to Portugal tomorrow and with a good week’s training out there I’d be surprised if they’re not in contention.”

Leinster have earned a two-legged last 16 tie against Connacht in the Heineken Champions Cup, only the fifth all-Irish derby in the tournament’s history, and Lancaster believes this will give the tournament a lift-off after the Covid-affected pool stages.

“What they have ended up with is 16 good teams who are going to play home and away, and obviously beyond that I’m hoping we’re going to see, fingers crossed, less of the Covid cancellations over the next few months. You’ll have the best of European teams playing against each other from the last 16 onwards.

“The home and away one is an interesting one, isn’t it? It’s rarely been done in rugby, although it’s been done in England when the Championship-winning team played the Premiership bottom team.

“The closest comparison, I guess, is when you played those December games in Europe. You’d play one game away and then at home. I remember we played Exeter away and beat them at Sandy Park, and then suddenly we played them at the Aviva and we’re 14-0 or 15-0 down in 10 minutes.

“So things can change in one week. I think they’ll be fascinating match-ups and obviously for us, to go to Connacht first of all and then have them come back to us, in terms of Irish interest and the crowds that will generate will be fantastic for the game.”

Rumblings of discontent perhaps remain louder in France than the other Eurosceptics in England, but with his insight into both English and now Irish rugby, Lancaster does not believe the Champions Cup matters more to the provinces.

“I think it definitely means as much to the English teams as the Irish teams, certainly in my experience. If you look at the English teams that are left in the competition this time, Leicester have topped their pool and won all their games, Harlequins have topped their pool and won all their games, Sale are obviously delighted and Alex Sanderson has experienced success in Europe with Saracens, so he’ll drive that with Sale. Pat Lam, with Bristol, it would be a huge thing for them to go well,” said Lancaster, and not to mention Exeter, Munster’s last 16 opponents and the champions the season before last.

“Across the board, now that we’re through the really challenging pool stage period, which was Covid-hit if you like, when you look at those last 16 match-ups there’s some brilliant games to be played and with the home and away aggregate score to factor in as well, I think once the Six Nations finishes the European Cup really will come to life.”

Leinster’s ruthless performances in scoring 23 tries over the last two weekends suggested they were releasing some pent up frustrations over the cancellation of their round two game away to Montpellier. Lancaster didn’t dispel that notion.

“Well yeah obviously the European Cup is a huge goal of Leinster’s, but also, the sense of frustration . . . not just that but the frustration of the cancelled games and five weeks of having to train against each other was frustrating as much, to be honest.

“It was certainly a big coaching challenge because you’ve got 35-40 of your best players and in order to generate match intensity you have to play them against each other.

“And obviously you imagine pitching Will Connors against Josh van der Flier or Johnny Sexton against Ross Byrne or Jamison Gibson-Park against Luke McGrath, the whole competitiveness of training went up during that period because normally as a coach you would train hard, they would hear my voice and the other coaches’ voices Monday, Tuesday, tailing off towards the players driving it towards the game.

“But obviously the Thursday, Friday became the game and still time to generate that. So I think we had enough of training against each other, to be honest,” he said with a wry smile.

“I think part of the outcome has been, one: five good weeks of almost like a pre-season training together, and two: frustration on a variety level, into those two performances.”

Lancaster could draw from a dozen Premiership clubs when he was England’s head coach, but the four Irish provinces signed off impressively on the eve of the Six Nations, and he believes less can be more.

“In Ireland having only four teams which are all different in their own way, but a lot of the emphasis is similar, in the way in which the teams are coached which is why the games are so competitive, so I think for Andy [Farrell] it’s a real strength.”

While Leinster have been bulk suppliers, Lancaster added: “You can see the Ulster players, the Munster players and the Connacht players getting rewarded for their form. That’s the nature of the beast in Ireland. The challenge is to create a team that has cohesion and can execute because it’s a results-based business.

“The one thing I’d say in Ireland’s benefit is they have stability in selection, stability in the coaching and a great November series to bounce off the back of, whereas other teams, you look at other teams, France, they made what 10 changes today; England have obviously got some new players coming in who have not been in the international environment before so I think Ireland are in a good place.”

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