Stuart Lancaster is emphatic when he declares that the Wasps team facing Leinster in Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final are a better outfit than the one that hit the province for 84 points and nine tries last season.
Saturday: Aviva Stadium, 3.15pm
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
TV: BT Sport/beIN Sports/Sky Italia
Bet: Leinster 8/15, Wasps 8/5, Draw 22/1
However, the senior coach is just as clear when declaring that Leinster are a different animal now, too.
Leo Cullen’s side was thumped 33-6 at the RDS in round one 17 months ago and then routed 51-10 in the return in Coventry.
Though the current Aviva Premiership leaders have lost some stardust since, they have added more again. Out went the likes of utility back Charles Piutau to Ulster, George Smith to Japan and Bradley Davis to Ospreys. In came the electric and enigmatic Kurtley Beale from the Waratahs, the equally controversial Danny Cipriani from Sale and even Marty Moore from Leinster.
Lancaster has had dealings with a fair few of the Wasps panel — Cipriani, Joe Launchbury, James Haskell among them — through his time coaching England and he is clearly a fan of a side which, he believes, has evolved again this term.
“Obviously [they’ve evolved], because this time last year they weren’t top of the Premiership and they weren’t scoring 70 tries,” he pointed out ahead of an Aviva Stadium encounter that has seen over 47,000 tickets snapped up. “So their attacking game has come on, no doubt, and the quality of their counter-attacking game in particular and their broken field attack is exceptional. I would say it is the best in the Premiership by a mile at the moment. Equally, I’m really confident in the way we have been progressing.”
Lancaster’s confidence was evidenced again when asked about the absence this weekend of Jamie Heaslip who, along with Rob Kearney, is facing a fight to be fit again before the end of the season after undergoing surgery in the wake of the Six Nations.
“Take Jack Conan,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty handy replacement.”
The official line on Conan, who didn’t play against Cardiff last weekend, is that he is so-so for this one, but Lancaster has confirmed that the versatile back row is expected to train today, while Zane Kirchner, Sean Cronin, and Dave Kearney are all back in contention after injuries.
Add in Isa Nacewa, Rory O’Loughlin, and Josh van der Flier, none of whom have reported any issues after returning from absences against Cardiff, and Leinster are well-stocked for a game that pits the Guinness PRO12 frontrunners against their English counterparts.
As Lancaster pointed out, Leinster have scored 70 tries this season, as well.
Ireland’s recent defeat of England at the same venue makes for an interesting backdrop to it all, but Lancaster was dismissive of the suggestion there would be any benefits — tangible or intangible — to the home side when the whistle blows this weekend.
Neither Wasps nor Leinster are facsimiles of their respective national sides, regardless of the shared personnel, though the latter could do worse than ape the Irish tactic two weekends ago of dominating possession and depriving their opponents of the ball for long duration.
The visitors possess a backline replete with game breakers and, in Cipriani, Beale, and Jimmy Gopperth, no end of playmakers capable of feeding the pace of Christian Wade and Elliott Daly. Stifling Wasps’ ability to attack wide and at pace off the counter will be paramount.
“It’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s about making sure, defensively, that you are robust and that you can put pressure on them and you have probably seen a difference in the width of our defensive line and the line speed we are able to create on the back of that,” said Lancaster.
“Secondly, when you are attacking it is [about] your decision making, when to offload and when to carry the ball and make sure you’re organised off setpiece. It is turnover ball where they are most dangerous but, equally, I have seen them score tries straight from setpiece as well. So they can challenge you in lots of different ways. They have a good maul and a good scrum and they are strong defensively. They have got good players who clearly believe in the coaching team. Dai Young has done a brilliant job in building the team and they will be confident.”
This one could be epic.
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