HE BELIEVES IT is well within their grasp, but Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster has nonetheless cautioned that Ireland still have a long road to travel in their quest for a Grand Slam in 2023.
Last Saturday’s meeting between the Irish and defending champions France at the Aviva Stadium was billed by many as a potential Championship decider. Given they came through the game with the maximum tally of five points for the second weekend running, there appears to be a golden opportunity for Ireland to secure a clean sweep of Six Nations honours.
Yet experience has taught Lancaster how a big win is quickly forgotten about if there isn’t a happy ending to a campaign. Across four consecutive Championships as England head coach [2012-2015], Lancaster guided his home country to four triumphs from five games in each season, but with just a Triple Crown in 2014 to show for their efforts.
A Grand Slam was within their sights during the 2013 Six Nations, only for Wales to shatter their dreams with a 30-3 final round success in Cardiff.
“You wouldn’t be taking anything for granted because every game starts from zero. It’s not like you get credit in the bank because you played well the previous week and you are playing Italy away,” Lancaster remarked at a Leinster media briefing yesterday.
“My experience of the Six Nations is that you might have games like these, but they are in the back of your mind by the end of the tournament. Because if you don’t win all five games there is always a sense of ‘what if?’
“You don’t tend to remember the ones you won, you remember the ones you lost. It’s easier said than done. For me it was won four, lost one, four times. So you keep focusing on the next job.”
A native of Cumbria in the north-west of England, Lancaster will bring the curtain down on a seven-year stint with Leinster this summer to take over as head coach of Top 14 side Racing 92.
In his time working alongside Leo Cullen, he has helped to oversee the progression of several players from burgeoning academy prospects to establish Irish internationals. Saturday’s player of the match Caelan Doris and try-scorer Hugo Keenan are included amongst this cohort and Lancaster acknowledged a sense of pride at how their careers have blossomed during his time on these shores.
“They were academy lads when I came in, in 2016. To coach them now for seven years and to see them go from 17, 18, 19 year olds to be fully fledged internationals. If there was a British and Irish Lions team at the moment they’d all be in it.
“If you’re talking about world class players, those lads are definitely in the conversation and not just them. Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, who didn’t play, Rónan Kelleher. The list goes on. I thought everyone contributed to the performance but Hugo, in particular, I thought had an outstanding game.
“Hugo was impeccable really on both sides of the ball, obviously he scored the try. Everyone contributed and it’s unfair to pick anyone out, really, but he was exceptional.”
While there was a whopping 21 Leinster players named in the Ireland squad for the week of the French game, the quintet of Jordan Larmour, Joe McCarthy, Michael Milne, Jimmy O’Brien and Jamie Osborne have been released back to the province ahead of Saturday’s United Rugby Championship clash with Dragons at the RDS.
Although he wasn’t in his original squad for the Six Nations, Andy Farrell revealed in the aftermath of the victory over France that Robbie Henshaw was back in the Irish camp doing some rehabilitation work.
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It was initially hoped that he might have gotten a game in with Leinster before potentially featuring in the closing stages of the Six Nations, but the visit of the Welsh region to Ballsbridge has come too soon for the ex-Connacht centre in his battle to overcome a wrist injury.
“It has taken a while. It’s frustrating for him, but the last thing anybody wants to do is to bring him back early and then he gets injured again. We just want to be sure,” Lancaster added.
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