Stuart Lancaster and Leinster ready to roll again at the RDS
Province welcome Dragons to Dublin as they look to shake off their Saracens hangover
Stuart Lancaster would welcome the addition of further South African franchises to the Pro14. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho
Stuart Lancaster knows a thing or two about England and Saracens, and amid the ongoing hangover brought about by Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final exit to Saracens, he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that this is part of a worrying trend.
“At the highest level, when you’re playing the best teams - and Saracens, irrespective of the players they’ve lost, were always going to be at that highest level - for me you have to hit a high percentage in every area of the game. There were areas of our game we didn’t quite nail,” he said on reflection of a defeat that still pains.
Recalling how Saracens built scoreboard pressure through three-pointers and then left Leinster with a mountain to climb, which they almost did, Lancaster said: “I really felt we had a chance to achieve a remarkable turnaround but we didn’t. They deserved it on the day. It’s disappointing because everything in finals rugby comes down to on the day and we didn’t quite deliver in enough of the fundamental areas. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that, to be honest.
“In 2018 it was the other way around; Ireland won the Grand Slam and we won the European Cup,” he reminded us. “The final last year was small margins. I know the narrative became we got overpowered and Saracens steamrollered us but at 10-3 nearing half-time I thought we were in a good position. Obviously they scored the try and it was 10-all at half-time. We definitely had opportunities and we talked about them in the lead-up to this game, about the opportunities on the edge against Saracens that we created in the second-half.
“We didn’t take them and then as Scott Fardy got binned and they got that try then when you’re chasing a game against Saracens it becomes difficult. So I felt that was theirs’ on the day and fair enough.
“In this one we conceded seven scrum penalties. I’ve not seen us conceded that many scrum penalties in four years, since I’ve been at Leinster. For a half of rugby it wasn’t great in terms of the picture that was happening in front of us, but also the score line, because three points, six points, nine points, twelve points, 15 - that obviously gave ourselves too much to do.”
Lancaster also pointed out that in three of the last four seasons Leinster have been the leading scorers in the pool stages of the Champions Cup, and they were the second highest in 2017-18. Nor does he subscribe to the theory that the Pro14 ill prepares Leinster for European rugby, arguing that it is the ideal model in many ways, although he would welcome the anticipated addition of the four South African rugby franchises.
“When you put the best Pro14 teams alongside each other and the best teams are available, I think it’s more than competitive. I know this year there are no Pro14 teams in the semi-finals and if that was happening on a regular basis, year in, year out, I think there would be an issue. But that’s not the case as we know, if you go back to the previous semi-finalists.
“That said, without getting into the whole global club game debate, if the South African teams were added to the Pro14 or Pro16 or whatever, I think that would be a good thing, personally. I think it would change the dynamic within the league and for a club like Leinster, they’re exactly the type of games that we’d want to be playing in, against the Stormers, the Bulls, the Sharks, the Lions etc, etc. So I think that would be a really positive step if that came about.”
In the short term, he welcomes the onset of the Pro14 season. An opening Friday night at an empty RDS for an 8.15pm kick off against the Dragons wouldn’t seem the ideal cure for that hangover, although Lancaster countered: “You’re probably (being) disingenuous to the Dragons, who have just signed Jamie Roberts, Nick Tompkins, there’s Ross Moriarity there and Aaron Wainwright, and there’s probably 10, 11, 12 Welsh internationals in their team, and Dean Ryan has now got his feet firmly under the table with his new coaching team.
“I don’t quite buy the fact that Dragons are a pushover, personally, and to be honest there’s nothing worse than being on the back of a defeat at the end of a season and having three months to think about it. It just sits with you and you can’t put it right.
“So we reviewed Saracens on the Monday, we trained on the Tuesday, the boys had a few days off, they’ve been in today, we’re trained well this afternoon and we’ll pick a strong team for Friday and then we’ll pick a strong team for Treviso.
“Then obviously the lads will go into camp with Ireland and then we’ll give the younger lads some great experience in that next block right through until Christmas.
“No, we’re looking forward to it. Going back to Saracens, it’s such a shame there weren’t 50,000 people in the Aviva and it’s such a shame going back to the RDS not to have supporters there. It’s odd, obviously, because it’s why we’re playing rugby and it’s quiet, but you miss the energy. You do miss the energy and it would be great to get fans back inside the stadium.”
“I appreciate the Government’s position but it would be great at some point in the near future if that was possible. Even a thousand would be good,” he ventured politely, before adding with a smile: “Or a hundred.”