Stuart Lancaster believes the disappointment felt by Ireland’s World Cup contingent can spur the four provinces to memorable heights in Europe, just as it did their English counterparts four years ago.
England, under the guidance of Lancaster at the time, became the first hosts to be eliminated at the pool stages of a World Cup thanks to defeats by Wales and Australia in 2015. But the players involved responded in some style in the months that followed.
Ireland’s test contingent has reacted in a similar vein over the course of the opening two European rounds. Every one of the provinces has reaped the benefit of scintillating performances by players who had experienced such devastation in Japan so recently.
“In 2015 with England we were knocked out and my final message to the players was to go back and get stuck into your club environment because the Six Nations will come around very quickly,” said the Leinster senior coach.
“Then they had, I think, five out of the eight teams in the (Champions Cup) quarter-finals that year. They just used it as motivation and I think the Irish guys have done the same.”
Wasps, Exeter Chiefs, Saracens, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers all made it though to the last eight on the back of England’s fall from grace then. Three of them pushed through to the semi-finals and Saracens went on to claim the honours come May.
The alacrity with which fortunes can change was only highlighted further in the spring of 2016 when an England squad containing 14 of the players who had bombed at the World Cup sealed a Six Nations Grand Slam with a 10-point defeat of France in Paris.
English fortunes have been more mixed so far in this campaign with their seven contestants racking up seven defeats against as many wins — against six victories and a draw from seven games for the provinces — as we move towards four Anglo-Irish ties in round three next month.
Munster will face the most intriguing of back-to-back assignments as they face Saracens home and away. As interesting as the games themselves will be the sides Mark McCall picks given the threat they face to their Premiership status with that 35-point deduction.
Leinster face Northampton Saints, Ulster go up against Harlequins and Connacht have Gloucester to contend with. Of those, only Gloucester have failed to win one of their opening games and Lancaster has been impressed with how the Premiership sides has fared on the back of their own World Cup issues.
“If you take Exeter, they are probably the best example. They have very much integrated Jack Nowell and Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie back in and to have two good wins and ten points it shows how well Exeter are playing at the moment.
“Gloucester have made some changes but probably could have beaten Montpellier and Saracens had a great win against Ospreys. Anyone would be naive to rule Saracens out of the equation given what is going on off the field. I still feel they have got a high quality team that will challenge everyone, irrespective of what team they put out.”
The same could be said for Leinster. Unbeaten in the PRO14 after six rounds, the province has reintegrated its World Cup contingent into the system and maintained that unbeaten streak with very different European wins at home to Benetton in round one and away to Lyon last Saturday.
Lyon wasn’t perfect. Lancaster wasn’t happy with their failure to finish off some openings in attack while a couple of issues at the setpiece kept Lyon in it late on when the game could and probably should have been put to bed. Now, he wasn’t spitting with indignation either.
Leinster have used a dozen of their 14 World Cup contingent. Only Sean Cronin and Jack Conan have yet to put on the blue jersey again and that’s because of injuries. No, Leinster and their test players look to be in a good place.
“They have been wanting to get going. Tadhg said to me after the game when I asked him how he got on that, ‘that was my first game in five weeks, since the New Zealand game’. So for someone like him to go into a European game away from home in France is a big step.
“The group that didn’t go to the World Cup played well. We were six from six in the PRO14 and they have been very confident in the development that have made and so they aren’t about to hand over the jersey easily.”
Changes in the air as provinces reshuffle
All changes utterly this week as the provinces press pause on their European affairs and recommit to the PRO14.
Human biology and common sense dictates the four head coaches will have to flood their squads with younger talent as the effects of the World Cup continue to ripple through a club season with four European rounds concertinaed into five weeks.
Some will be better able to juggle their resources than others. Connacht will clearly struggle given their lack of depth and an injury crisis that compromised their efforts away to Toulouse though they do face a desperately poor Kings side in Galway.
Munster and Ulster will get the ball rolling from an Irish perspective this weekend as they welcome Edinburgh and Scarlets to Cork and Belfast respectively. Both games kick off at 7.35pm on Friday.
Leinster will have the usual ranks of academy graduates to usher into the fray away to Glasgow on Saturday.
“The players who didn’t go to the World Cup, definitely benefited from the extended pre-season that we had,” said Leinster’s Stuart Lancaster. “It was a longer pre-season since the season started later and we definitely treat Glasgow with the same respect we will a European team.
“We played them in the final last year in Glasgow. We know how good they are, we beat them — just — so we’re comfortable making changes, depending how many we make, which then freshens players up. It gives us the opportunity to rest and rotate players.
“That’s crucial in a season that ends in the PRO14 final at the end of June, then at international level ends with test matches in Australia as well. You have to be able to do that, otherwise it’s impossible to fight on two fronts.”