'I'm confident we've made improvements' - Leinster look to close gap on Europe's elite

'I'm confident we've made improvements' - Leinster look to close gap on Europe's elite
© Ben Brady INPHO Stuart Lancaster keeps watch during a Leinster training session on Monday.

AS OPENING CHAMPIONS Cup weekends go, Leinster’s could hardly look kinder.

On Saturday the province host Bath at the Aviva Stadium, with the English side in desperate form ahead of the short flight to Dublin. With nine games played in the Gallagher Premiership, Bath are still to pick up their first win of the season and are rooted to the bottom of the table.

With that in mind, the challenge at Leinster this week is to ensure complacency doesn’t seep into their thinking ahead of what looks like a very winnable fixture for the province, who warmed up for the game with an clinical performance against Connacht last Friday.

“Obviously subconscious complacency, because the boys would never consciously be complacent,” explains Leinster senior coach, Stuart Lancaster.

“Particularly when it’s a European week, you can feel the difference in the environment already. I quickly went through the Connacht review this morning (Monday) and quickly turned the page to Bath, I know more than enough people from Bath, both the playing squad and the coaching staff very well, and I know how much they’ll be hurting and working behind the scenes to improve things.

“Sometimes when the shackles are off, the pressure of the Premiership is gone, they could come and think they’re going to have a great day out in Dublin and let’s try and give it a lash.

What drives us really is us and our performance and knowing we played well against Connacht but we can improve on that. And it’s also the first time we’ve had all our lads back from the Ireland squad. We’ll definitely be focused on us but I’ll be giving Bath as much attention in terms of preview and insight as I can, because I want us to be prepared and play well.

“If they get a good start and build their belief, as we saw in the games in 2018 – we played in the Rec first and we were probably lucky to win really, and they came to the Aviva and we got a good win there so there is definitely lessons that can be learned from those games and that has definitely been mentioned already this morning.”

As always, Leinster head into the Champions Cup with their eyes on the top prize. Since last winning the competition in 2018, they have come undone against powerful packs in the form of Saracens (2019, 2020) and La Rochelle (2021). It’s a trend they are keen to end.

'I'm confident we've made improvements' - Leinster look to close gap on Europe's elite
© Billy Stickland Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster

While rarely short of depth across the park, over the last year Leinster’s pack has noticeably developed into a more explosive, dynamic unit – and provided the backbone for Ireland’s impressive wins over Japan, New Zealand and Argentina last month.

“The top end in Europe is a challenge,” Lancaster says.

“I think people have said in the past that it’s different to international rugby, but with all due respect to some of the international teams in November, you play against a La Rochelle or a Toulouse or a Saracens or a Leicester now, you’ve not just got teams who are stacked with homegrown international talent, they are supplemented by overseas international talent as well and it makes them very, very competitive.

For Leinster to win at the highest level, it’s not just trying to beat the power teams at their own game, it’s getting every bit of your own game right. You have to get everything right at the highest level – in international rugby or top-end European rugby – to win the game.

“We’re very, very respectful of the opposition that is in this competition. There is not one team I would look at and go ‘this is a gimme’ or ‘this is a team we’re not going to pay much attention to’ – and we’ve learned that to our cost because the last time we won it was 2018. We lost against Saracens in 2019 and 2020, then obviously La Rochelle (last season), so you’ve got to get everything right. That includes the scrum, the lineout, the breakdown, your attacking game, your kicking game, your defensive organisation.

“So I’m confident we’ve made improvements, but I’ll never be sat here thinking we’re going to walk through this competition, because there are too many good teams, too many good coaches, and too many teams that are set up to challenge us in different ways, complemented by quality international players and quality overseas players as well, that make them formidable.

“Particularly away from home, hence the desire to do well in the pool stages in order to try and guarantee yourself… I know it’s home and away in the last 16, but if you do well in the pool you have a better chance of a home quarter-final and a home semi-final, and that’s obviously got to be the aim.”

Leinster will likely head into the Bath game without the services of Johnny Sexton and Jack Conan, who both continue to work their way back from injury, while James Ryan is still being monitored following his recent head injury.

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Still, Leo Cullen and his coaching team have more than enough talent to make up for the absence of a couple of heavy hitters.

“It’s not bad to have Caelan Doris as an option at No. 8 to be fair,” Lancaster continues.

“You’ve got Ross and Harry (Byrne) and Ciaran Frawley and Garry (Ringrose) and Robbie (Henshaw), so we’ve got options. I think the trick for us is to build on the Connacht performance, get the cohesion that we want, and deliver that at home on Saturday in front of our home fans.

“The other lads will come back in the mix towards the end of the week. It’s not a bad couple of additions to add to your squad because you’re then playing away in France (against Montpellier in round two), you know to have Johnny, Jack and James Ryan potentially available, that will make a difference.”

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