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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Tony Ward

Stuart Lancaster will be a massive loss to Leinster when he leaves and let nobody pretend otherwise

Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster

We’ll not get ahead of ourselves, but even at this stage of the season it is widely accepted that Leinster Rugby as currently constituted is an exhilarating watch.

It is exciting because it is a winning brand of rugby, exercising so many essential variables.

Some serious tests lie ahead as the case for end-of-season supremacy is still to be proven with Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and the rest of the coaching cast first to confess to serious heavyweight inadequacies when the best of England and France, specifically the Saracens and La Rochelles, have been in opposition.

If that much-coveted fifth star is to be achieved, then logic dictates, given the involvement of South Africa’s finest for the first time in this Heineken Champions Cup, that getting down and getting dirty is going to be every bit as essential as the high-quality aesthetics being witnessed everywhere else, not least around the fringes of this potentially most exciting period yet in Leinster Rugby history.

That is some statement given what has gone before. Outside of the World Cup, there is no greater prize or higher bar in world rugby.

There is a changing of the guard both on the field and off with Shane Nolan already having succeeded Mick Dawson as CEO, while Lancaster – for me the most vital cog in the evolutionary process to date – will depart for France at the end of this season.

Ross Byrne (right) should be in the frame for World Cup selection alongside Joey Carbery. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

He will be a massive loss and let nobody pretend otherwise. On the plus side, and I have spoken to him about this, he is not adverse to a Leinster return if and when that possibility arises.

But for now, it’s all systems go in pursuit of that fifth Champions Cup and first in what is now in every possible way the greatest prize outside of the Test arena – and, no, we are not denigrating Super Rugby or specifically New Zealand and Australia’s finest one little bit. And, yes, it would be great to have a world club play-off similar to football, too.

On Saturday at Gloucester’s Kingsholm, which, with respect to Welford Road and Leicester, is English rugby’s equivalent to Thomond Park, Leinster, to a man, were ruthless.

Seven tries by seven different players to two penalty tries conceded in a Champions Cup tie away from home is some performance, and that should be acknowledged for what it was.

Enough to guarantee success for what lies ahead and the Club Rochelais, Saracens and Stade Toulousains still to come? Not one little bit. But credit where credit is due. In every line of the team and from one to 23, they were humming.

The entire three-quarter line was on fire with Garry Ringrose proving an inspired referee-friendly choice as skipper, leaving James Ryan time and space to work his way back to where he was pre-Covid. Ross Molony’s essentially understated role should not be underestimated in the least.

We’ll not go over the top here either, but Hugo Keenan is responding to Mike Haley’s red-hot form for Munster in the very same way.

I need little convincing as to Jordan Larmour’s worth to Leinster and to Ireland in the nine or 10 months ahead.

Heaven help Andy Farrell in selecting his back three when push comes to shove. And now in the absence of Robbie Henshaw and Ciarán Frawley, we have Jamie Osborne on the horizon.

With the most perfectly compact physique (Osborne) for a central midfield player, Lancaster (there’s that man again) called it spot on ahead of the trek to Gloucester when tipping this 21-year-old for much greater things in the near future.

Up front, all the right moves are being made in terms of player development.

I am thinking specifically of Joe McCarthy and Jason Jenkins (at 27, a smart signing and in his prime), while Ryan Baird’s repositioning as a blindside flanker is inspired if also logical in every way.

Finally, given the dilemma in Munster in terms of the logjam at ‘10’, and as time runs out before the World Cup, the seamless transition between Ross Byrne and Johnny Sexton for Leinster on a consistent basis should not be overlooked at national level up.

Short of challenging the opposition defence through sleight of hand closer the gain line, Byrne is to all intents and purposes a like-for-like replacement for Sexton.

Time is not on Farrell’s side, so on a needs-must basis allied to form, Byrne should be in that frame for World Cup selection alongside Joey Carbery.

“We were far from perfect, but what was perfect was our desire.”

Not Rowntree but new Tigers coach Richard Wigglesworth talking about Leicester and the club they once shared following their weekend win over Clermont.

It applied to the letter to 14-man Munster in Limerick as well. Onward and upward.

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