Stuart Lancaster: Leinster’s season will hinge on winning the moments

Returning players have given province an embarrassment of riches in the backrow

James Ryan with new Leinster addition Michael Ala’alatoa. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

James Ryan with new Leinster addition Michael Ala’alatoa. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

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Maybe Europe and La Rochelle are still on Stuart Lancaster’s mind. Satisfied with the game against Harlequins and last weekend’s schooling of the South African Bulls in the first competitive URC match, the former England coach nonetheless understands you can lose competitions in the opening weeks of a season but you can never win them.

He might leave the pain of La Rochelle in the aspic of last season. But he will take the instruction of what Leinster can do to be better into this one. It has been a good start, okay. But really, it is how Leinster will finish and what they need to do when faced with teams that can be as good or better than they are which really matters.

Big moments are what Lancaster has distilled winning down to in those end of season clutch matches. It is who can make the big call at the right time, read the moment to run at a defence or kick long. Winning those hinge occasions is what the All Blacks were able to recently show the Springboks.

“It’s interesting watching New Zealand and South Africa,” says Lancaster.

“That came down to one penalty in the end. One team was playing a territory game based on kicking and field position. The other team was trying to play a more unstructured attacking-minded game.

“Two of the best teams in the world, one and two, going at each other and it comes down to a penalty in the final play. It’s small margins and we want to be on the right side this time.”

Lancaster adds that he knows which team philosophy Leinster would like to and to some extent have adopted.

“We’d be definitely more aligned to New Zealand. It has been interesting chatting to Mike Ala’alatoa about the Crusaders, the mentality of how they play, picking up things from him.

Max Deegan impressed as he returned to action for Leinster against the Bulls. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Max Deegan impressed as he returned to action for Leinster against the Bulls. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“We also recognise that if we need to play a pressure game, then we can do that also. One of the things the Bulls defence coach said after the game that they found hard to prepare for was the unpredictability and the variety of our attack. I thought we mixed the game up well and gone are the days where you can just be one trick and expect to win the big games.”

Also with players such as Max Deegan, Andrew Porter, Garry Ringrose and Ciaran Frawley in harness and suffering no ill-effects from the weekend, and with Harry Byrne making a return to team training this week, Leinster continue to restore their larder with a selection of options.

Calls at outhalf and the backrow are the standout congested areas. Frawley is already adapting as a ball playing centre with outhalf skills, while Deegan played with a fearlessness after such a long time in recovery, that spoke to everyone that he understands the backrow competition for place is hot. Especially at number eight.

“It’s an incredibly tough position if you layer on Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, Rhys Ruddock can play eight, Dan Leavy can play eight,” says Lancaster. “There’s a few others as well. It’s tough. That’s definitely going to bring the best out of Max.

“I think he rises to a challenge and he loves a big occasion. I was really pleased with him. I said to him after the game I was really pleased that coming on in a game like that and having had the injury he’s had an been out for so long, he wasn’t afraid to take the game on and take the ball to the line, do all the things we know he can do very well.

“He’s an amazing footballer. He’s a real good athlete. He’s really, really good at taking the line on as Jack and Caelan are. They are both very good at the same thing so I think he’s looked at those two and said he’s going to have to play out of his skin at every training session and every game.”

Years have also taught Lancaster that the opportunity to have all the players available to play at the one time is almost never. The interrogation of the team is always going to be of a nature that only the broader squad can answer. In Leinster there’s an acceptance of that. In truth, it’s something they have lived with for many years.

“But it’s exciting,” says Lancaster. “The challenge is always going to be, we get those lads on the field for a couple of games and then they’ll go away for Ireland, then they’ll come back for November-December time, they’ll play some games in Europe and rest and rotate during the interpros, potentially, and then play some in Europe and then away for Six Nations. So it is a squad thing as well.”

And reason enough for some early season optimism.

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