They may not appreciate it but Irish rugby fans are living through a golden age for the sport in the republic. Their national team won a Grand Slam and claimed second place in the World Rugby’s food chain and Ireland’s hegemony over Europe will rival that of the Habsburgs if Leinster can match Toulouse’s record by lifting their fourth European Champions Cup next weekend when they face Racing 92 in Bilbao.
I was watching the Scotland Under-18s take on their Welsh counterparts on BT Murrayfield’s back pitch a few months ago when I bumped into Leinster’s “senior coach”. Stuart Lancaster was watching son Dan, a tidy 10/12 who has thrown his lot in with Scotland for reasons that are all too prosaic.
“It was quite simple really,” says Lancaster, “Alan Tait was watching Yorkshire Carnegie’s age grade team and Dan was playing. Taity knew that he qualified for Scotland so he approached Dan who was open minded. That was that really.”
So far Lancaster Jnr has made a good call. Scotland U18 won all three matches in a recent Six Nations rugby festival and were the only team with a perfect record.
Leinster’s stats in Europe are even more impressive. They’ve played eight, won eight, and should they beat Racing next weekend the Dublin side will become only the second team to win every match in one Champions Cup campaign after Saracens managed the same on their way to the 2016 title.
The semi-final against Scarlets last month was one of the most lopsided matches in recent memory. The Welsh side were also-rans on the day, lucky to come second in a two-horse race. Was that, I ask, the best performance of any side he has helped coach?
“In club coaching it was right up there because of the accuracy and the intensity with which we played,” Lancaster says. “But equally if I go back to the pool stages… to beat Glasgow home and away, to beat Montpellier home and away and then to beat Saracens in the quarter-final, the performances all needed to be right at the top end because of the quality of the teams we were playing.”
So they were always building towards that Scarlets’ performance?
“I wouldn’t say that,” the former England coach argues. “You have to hit the ground running in the Champions Cup. If you lose the first game it’s a long way back. We fortunately got that first win against Montpellier at home and then won against Glasgow away.
“In the back-to-back games we went to Sandy Park and won there [against Exeter] first so I think we have played consistently well in the pool stages and I thought that the Saracens game was a great effort given the quality of them as a team.”
That Exeter clash was notable for a try by breakaway Jack Conan that showed the best of Leinster rugby and the worst. With the Chiefs standing off the breakdown Leinster’s attack was faced with a pink wall and they played frill-free, one-pass to grind their way to the Exeter line until the flanker eventually bulldozed his way over after a lung-sapping 44 phases of play.
It was not, I suggest, the most exciting performance in European history and the habitually laid-back Lancaster is stung by the criticism.
“I think it would be a bit hard to say that Leinster haven’t played good rugby,” he says with some exasperation. “We scored the most tries in the pool stages last year and I think we scored the most tries this year [they did] and that sequence of play should not change people’s perception of how we play.
“You have to play different ways to beat different defences. If the defence is filling the field from one side to the other then you have to play through them. If they defend tight then you have to play around them. If they have a lot of people in the front line then you have to kick more effectively.
“It’s that adaptability that we have tried to develop this year rather than just be a team that plays exciting Leinster rugby. You’re the only person that has ever mentioned it. I’ve never heard that [criticism] from anyone else! We play boring rugby to get to the final of Europe?”
Well, low-risk, error-free rugby, I suggest, rowing backwards.
“Are you being serious? Have you watched the games?”
Not as many as you, I concede.
“Watch some of the tries we have scored. You can’t do that by just playing error-free rugby.”
Leinster have the personnel to run riot, and they occasionally do, but they are not alone in that. Racing 92’s scrum-half, skipper and kicker Maxime Machenaud is out of the contest, a huge blow for his side, but the Parisian aristocrats still have threats. Flying winger Teddy Thomas scored two in the semi-final against Munster, it would have been three had he not passed to Machenaud over the try line. Where else, I ask Lancaster, are his side expecting to be tested?
“I think you probably know him better than I do… [Leone] Nakarawa,” he replies. “He is an exceptional ball carrier, ball player. Pat Lambie is obviously a very good ten. [Virimi] Vakatawa the centre, he feeds off Nakarawa who is the key man. I’ve never seen him not have a great game to be honest.”
With a place in the Champions final and an ongoing interest in the Guinness Pro14, Leinster are at the very pinnacle of their considerable powers, so how did they get there?
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Lancaster replies. “There is a very experienced playing group who have been coached by some very good coaches. That has combined with a very talented group of young players coming through.
“There is also a very strong sense of culture and identity. It is very much a home-grown squad, 90 per cent of the team are from Leinster, the majority from a ten-mile radius of Dublin. So that gives us strength as well.”
Leinster will start as ten-point favourites and Irish rugby expects to add another honour to their long list.