Far­rell and Lan­caster could work the or­a­cle

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - IAN McGEECHAN

EURO­PEAN rugby re­turns next week­end, and all eyes will be on cham­pi­ons Le­in­ster. After Ire­land’s all-con­quer­ing au­tumn, more than ever it feels as if Leo Cullen’s men are the team to beat in Euro­pean rugby’s big­gest club com­pe­ti­tion. That is rather stat­ing the ob­vi­ous, of course. Le­in­ster play the best rugby and have the best play­ers. And, cru­cially, they can af­ford to rest the best play­ers.

Not one of their stars who played in Ire­land’s dra­matic win against New Zealand in Dublin last month (Le­in­ster pro­vided over half the team, with Cian Healy, Tadhg Fur­long, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sex­ton, Garry Rin­grose and Rob Kear­ney all in the start­ing XV) played in their PRO14 match at the Dragons yes­ter­day. Can any­thing de­rail Le­in­ster? I’m not sure. But one thing which might al­ter the dy­namic just a lit­tle bit — al­beit not this sea­son — would be if se­nior coach Stu­art Lan­caster joined Andy Far­rell at Ire­land after next year’s World Cup.

The an­nounce­ment that Far­rell is to suc­ceed Joe Sch­midt post-Ja­pan 2019 is a fas­ci­nat­ing devel­op­ment and I am in­trigued to see how it all plays out. It is clear he is part of a very pos­i­tive coach­ing en­vi­ron­ment that has been built up around the prov­inces and the na­tional team. He lacks ex­pe­ri­ence as a No 1 but you only need to lis­ten to the play­ers with whom he has worked to re­alise the es­teem in which he is held. Re­mem­ber, he has two Lions tours with War­ren Gat­land un­der his belt. War­ren al­ways holds on to good peo­ple.

The big ques­tion is who he might bring in to work un­der him. Could the IRFU pos­si­bly ex­tend an in­vi­ta­tion to Stu­art, who has rein­vented him­self so suc­cess­fully at Le­in­ster? I can see it hap­pen­ing. Stu­art is al­ready un­der an IRFU con­tract. The power­bro­kers within Ir­ish rugby, not to men­tion the play­ers with whom Stu­art works at Le­in­ster, clearly rate him very highly. I gen­uinely think Stu­art would be in­trigued by the chal­lenge. Stu­art’s hu­mil­ity is one of his great­est strengths, along with the fact that he is clearly an out­stand­ing coach.

I was in­trigued to read Sam Burgess’s thoughts on the 2015 World Cup, which he pub­lished on Twit­ter this week, al­leg­ing that “in­di­vid­ual egos” and “self­ish play­ers” were to blame for Eng­land’s pool-stage exit at the tour­na­ment, and had “cost the coach and other great men” their jobs. I don’t know who Burgess was re­fer­ring to. But what I do know is that Stu­art has al­ways been an out­stand­ing coach. And when he is solely able to fo­cus on that, the re­sults speak for them­selves.

Le­in­ster did lose their last Cham­pi­ons Cup match, ad­mit­tedly, by a point away at Toulouse. But that is about all they have lost over the past 12 months. I can­not see them slip­ping up in terms of qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Toulouse are top of the group and look to have their swag­ger back. But they still have to travel to Dublin. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing time of the sea­son. I love this back-to-back Euro­pean dou­ble-header.

A cou­ple of wins can set you up for the fes­tive pe­riod and the prospect of qual­i­fy­ing for the knock­out stages next year. A cou­ple of de­feats can ef­fec­tively end your Euro­pean run and leave you star­ing at a long do­mes­tic dog­fight. It’s real make-or-break stuff.

Pool One, as I say, is in­trigu­ingly poised with Toulouse top on eight points. But they have a tough away trip to Wasps next week­end with Dai Young’s team know­ing that any­thing but a win will prob­a­bly see them dumped out. And Toulouse know that they have Le­in­ster lurk­ing just two points back. Bath will have to play ex­cep­tion­ally well to get any­thing out of the Euro­pean cham­pi­ons next Satur­day.

In Pool Two, Ex­eter are bot­tom but they have the ad­van­tage of play­ing Glouces­ter at home in the first game of their dou­ble-header. That is a real ad­van­tage in terms of build­ing mo­men­tum. Glouces­ter have moved on this sea­son, with Danny Cipri­ani ob­vi­ously hav­ing made a big im­pact. Some of their rugby has been great. But Ex­eter will have their in­ter­na­tional con­tin­gent back. And after Premier­ship suc­cess in 2017, they are des­per­ate to prove them­selves on the Euro­pean stage. I can­not see them slip­ping up.

The other pool that catches my eye is Pool Five. Who could have fore­seen that New­cas­tle would be top after two games? Their trip to Ed­in­burgh on Fri­day night is an­other re­ally in­ter­est­ing fix­ture. Richard Cock­er­ill has done a won­der­ful job up there, but they are still not as con­sis­tent as Glas­gow. I would not put it past New­cas­tle to emerge from it with the vic­tory.

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