Richard Bath brings us the latest happenings from 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.