Stuart Lancaster needs no introduction to the dangers Leinster will be facing when they go toe-to-toe with Saracens in Saturday’s heavyweight Heineken Champions Cup final.
A look down the potential team-sheet of the two-time European champions reveals seven players the province’s senior coach gave Test debuts to during his reign at the England helm between 2012 and 2015.
Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt , Alex Goode, the Vunipola brothers Mako and Billy, Jamie George, and George Kruis, all got their first caps from Lancaster and are all likely to be in the Saracens team aiming to stop Leinster’s bid for a record fifth European title at Newcastle’s St James’ Park this Saturday.
“I’d know them all well, they’re a very, very experienced team now, those young players came through at Saracens, ended up getting capped by England, and now are seasoned internationals and Lions,” Lancaster said yesterday.
“They’ve played together in a Saracens team that’s lost together but also gone on to win together.
“In fact, I was looking at the side that played Clermont in the (2017) final — we lost in the semi (to Clermont) — they played the final in Murrayfield, and if they start Vincent Koch, which they may or may not do, it’s pretty much the same pack.
Mako, Jamie, Koch, Maro (Itoje), Kruis, (Michael) Rhodes, (Jackson) Wray, Vunipola could easily be the same pack while there are very few changes in the backline.
"There’s a lot of experience in that team.”
The same pack, with USA tighthead Tito Lamositele in for Koch, that overpowered Munster in the semi-final, forcing Johann van Graan’s side to play in the wrong areas of the field, winning penalties and keeping the scoreboard ticking over in a 32-16 victory. Lancaster is well aware of the danger of allowing Saracens to build scoreboard pressure.
“It’s the same with any team that plays — Munster are the same, actually — a pressure game, who build their game based on territory, as well as power and footballing ability.
“It plays into their hands because you end up having to chase the game. Now it’s not impossible to do, because I’ve seen teams do it and we’ve done it against teams when you’ve fallen behind.
“But it’s definitely not the way you want to do it because you end up having to over-play in your own half to get the opportunity in their half.”
With a fortnight to prepare for this Saturday’s marquee decider after romping home as Guinness PRO14 conference winners to earn a bye to a home semi-final with Munster on May 18, Lancaster and head coach Leo Cullen have had plenty of time to assess the challenges posed by Saracens’ all-court game, one overseen by Mark McCall, that has allowed the 2016 and 2017 champions to cruise unbeaten into a third European final in four years with a perfect pool campaign followed by the trouncing of Leinster’s PRO14 rivals Glasgow and Munster in the knockout stages. Lancaster took a broad view of the threats to consider.
“Most things,” he said. “They’ve a very good defence, it’s very well coached and disciplined, you go through the defence coaches at the club; Andy Farrell leading to Paul Gustard leading to Alex Sanderson, so, they’re very good defensively, they’re very good at playing the patient game and building pressure on the opposition.
Owen’s a world-class kicker, so if you’re ill-disciplined, (they) build three points, six points, nine points.
"They’re happy to play the territory game, they’ve got patience there, but in attack, I think they’ve improved the quality of their starter plays.
"They’ve got the ability to play a power game, and with two ball players like Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, they can kill you in the unstructured part of the game as well.
“So you can see by the way they played how well coached and well organised they are. You’ve got to be good at everything, we’ve got to be able to defend their threats, obviously, the aerial threat, but equally, we have to impose a Leinster game on to their defence as well.
“But you talk about the quality of Saracens...we’ve scored the most tries in the pools over the last three years, we’ve scored the most tries in the PRO14 so we’d back our attack as well.”
Lancaster’s reminder that Leinster have some useful weapons themselves is well made yet this remains the greatest challenge of their season as they bid for a back-to-back double of Champions Cup and PRO14 titles having beaten Racing 92 and Scarlets in those respective finals 12 months ago.
He added: “It’s the Champions Cup final and it’s the two best teams in the final. Saracens have won all their pool games, two great quarter-final, semi-final wins.
“I remember we did the same last year, and it came down to 78 minutes 30 seconds when we took the lead in the final, so what happens prior to the final, it’s not irrelevant.”