Richard Bath brings us the lat­est hap­pen­ings from the UK.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - RICHARD BATH IS AN AWARD-WIN­NING WRITER BASED IN THE UK.

FOR REA­SONS THAT AREN’T

IM­POR­TANT, I have cause to speak to Sir Ian McGeechan about rugby on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

As you’d ex­pect from a man who has such a sto­ried ca­reer as a player and coach, and who has long been viewed as an in­no­va­tor able to stand along­side men like Car­wyn James, Izak van Heer­den and Vic Ca­vanagh, he oc­ca­sion­ally expresses some pro­found thoughts about the game of rugby.

We re­cently spent the thick end of two hours chat­ting about Le­in­ster. They are, reck­ons Geech, com­fort­ably the most in­no­va­tive side in world rugby at the mo­ment, and pos­si­bly in the pro­fes­sional era.

It’s worth men­tion­ing that they have al­ways been fairly suc­cess­ful, hav­ing won the Pro14 four times and the Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup a record-equalling four times.

But re­cently, their de­vel­op­ment has been ex­po­nen­tial, and has com­fort­ably eclipsed the pe­riod up to 2014 in which they won seven ma­jor tro­phies in seven years.

This year it is not just ex­cel­lence which has seen them dom­i­nate, it is in­no­va­tion which has taken them com­fort­ably away from the chas­ing pack.

That in­no­va­tion has also brought re­sults, of course. They re­cently won the Cham­pi­ons Cup at a can­ter against Dan Carter’s huge spend­ing Rac­ing 92 and, at the time of writ­ing, hav­ing just edged past lo­cal ri­vals Mun­ster, have made it to the Pro14 fi­nal in Dublin against a Scar­lets side which they thrashed 38-16 barely a month ear­lier.

Given how close Mun­ster came in the semi­fi­nal and how well Rac­ing did against the Ir­ish­men in the Cham­pi­ons Cup fi­nal, noth­ing can be taken for granted.

But then, this Le­in­ster team is so rammed full of guile, wit and con­fi­dence that they in­vari­ably find a way to win.

But let’s leave their spirit, phys­i­cal­ity and dura­bil­ity to one side for the mo­ment and con­cen­trate on the sub­ject of their in­no­va­tion.

There are many areas in which Le­in­ster are world-class – un­der the high ball, po­si­tion­ally, with the Li­ons-like line­speed of their de­fen­sive line, and in li­ne­out drives to name just a few – but there are two areas in which Le­in­ster are gen­uinely out in front, lead­ing the way.

The first, McGeechan and I both agreed, is at the break­down. Their ac­cu­racy is quite re­mark­able and has led to some in­cred­i­ble tries this year.

It is no sur­prise, for in­stance, that when Ire­land put to­gether 41 phases in in­jury time in France in this year’s Six Na­tions to give Johnny Sex­ton a chance to kick the win­ning drop-goal in Paris,

there were five Le­in­ster for­wards on the park.

The re­cent English Premier­ship semi­fi­nals, won with ease by Sara­cens and Ex­eter, were also in­struc­tive. “In very dif­fer­ent ways, both sides were ab­so­lutely out­stand­ing at the break­down,” says McGeechan, “and both were far, far bet­ter than they were six months ago. The com­mon link is that they were both well-beaten by Le­in­ster in the Cham­pi­ons Cup but ab­sorbed the lessons of why that was the case.

“So Sar­ries now vary the num­ber of men they com­mit to the break­down so they can tar­get turnovers in ex­actly the same way that Le­in­ster did against them, while Ex­eter looked at how Le­in­ster dom­i­nated pos­ses­sion and ap­plied that les­son against New­cas­tle – pretty suc­cess­fully given that Ex­eter had 92 per cent pos­ses­sion in the first half.”

When it comes to the break­down, part of Le­in­ster’s suc­cess comes, of course, from its con­veyor belt of tal­ented play­ers, with nip­pers like James Ryan and Dan Leavy com­ing in to re­place ab­sent warhorses like Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

It also helps to have ball-han­dling for­wards of the qual­ity of Tadgh Fur­long, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, and Cian Healey in tow, not to men­tion im­pres­sive im­port Scott Fardy in the sec­ond row.

But as well as a re­mark­ably gifted player pool, Le­in­ster’s mas­tery of the break­down has emerged since former Eng­land coach Stu­art Lan­caster joined head coach Leo Cullen’s man­age­ment team. Lan­caster, the former Scot­land A flanker who was hounded out of the Eng­land job af­ter a dis­mal run-in to the last World Cup cul­mi­nated with him be­com­ing the first coach not to take the hosts to the knock-out stages, has been re­born in Dublin.

Lan­caster has taken an al­ready ac­com­plished Le­in­ster side to a new level and has been rightly lauded for that un­likely feat.

Heaslip spoke about the English­man be­ing as good as Ire­land coach Joe Sch­midt, while af­ter the Cham­pi­ons Cup win club legend Sex­ton chose not to speak about three-times win­ning coach Cullen or de­part­ing skip­per Isa Nacewa in his last game for the side, but to speak only about Lan­caster’s con­tri­bu­tion to the win.

“What a spe­cial coach to come in and do what he’s done,” said Sex­ton. “He did an un­be­liev­able job with Eng­land. That gets over­looked by one re­sult; a re­sult in the World Cup that could have gone ei­ther way against Wales. How­ever things turn out for a rea­son and we might not be Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons to­day if Eng­land didn’t lose that game.”

Ac­cord­ing to Sex­ton, Lan­caster is also key to the other area where Le­in­ster have been un­stop­pable this year: carv­ing sides apart off No 10.

Sex­ton, of course, has been cen­tral to that, al­though the Ir­ish­men have still looked like a force of nature on those oc­ca­sions when the 32-year-old has been miss­ing and Joey Car­bery has been forced to step up. The system is all.

Once again the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Le­in­ster and Ire­land has been sym­bi­otic. Play­ers like cen­tres Rob­bie Hen­shaw and Garry Rin­grose, back three play­ers Jor­dan Lar­mour, Rob Kear­ney and Fer­gus Mc­Fad­den have brought many of Sch­midt’s ideas back to the Royal Dublin Show­ground, just as they have taken many of Lan­caster’s meth­ods to the Aviva Sta­dium.

The re­sults for both have been star­tling. This sea­son Le­in­ster beat the cham­pi­ons of Eng­land and France home and away in the Cham­pi­ons Cup pool, and also laid low the lead­ers and cham­pi­ons of the Pro14 in the process.

If the break­down was de­ci­sive, it was Le­in­ster’s abil­ity to lac­er­ate de­fences in mid­field that con­verted that pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory into points. At times, such as their 55-19 win over a fully-loaded Glas­gow War­riors side at the RDS – Le­in­ster were play­ing rugby from an­other planet.

Ire­land had al­ready been mak­ing huge strides un­der Sch­midt, as ev­i­denced by their win over the All Blacks in Chicago and fight­ing dis­play in Dublin.

Yet this year, with Le­in­ster play­ers lead­ing the way, they stepped up to win the Six Na­tions by em­phat­i­cally beat­ing Eng­land at Twick­en­ham on the last day of the Cham­pi­onship.

Lan­caster may have made a to­tal mess of try­ing to win the 2015 World Cup, but at this rate his work with the Le­in­ster play­ers could just see the dig­ni­fied English­man have his day in the greentinted sun in Ja­pan in 2019.

In very dif­fer­ent ways, both sides were ab­so­lutely out­stand­ing at the break­down, and both were far, far bet­ter than they were six months ago.’ Ian McGeechan

| | JUNE/JULY 2018 OUT­SIDE THE BOX The men from Le­in­ster are set­ting new stan­dards at the break­down.

WEL­COME AD­DI­TION Stu­art Lan­caster has added real value to Le­in­ster since he joined from Eng­land.

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