Stuart Lancaster was spot on jinking his way clear of the hype. There was the former England boss on the first Monday of 2020 being quizzed if Leinster can sweep all before them and remain unbeaten this season. Madness.
Fourteen matches might have been already won on the bounce since the curtain was raised on September 28, but there is a heck of a long road still to travel before trophies are handed out.
A possible 13 matches remain in the Guinness PRO14. Another five in the Heineken Champions Cup, starting Sunday when Lyon pitch up at the Dublin RDS. No wonder Lancaster wasn’t losing any sleep about the notion of them finishing it out as invincibles. There is way too much rugby to be played yet.
“No, no. It’s not something that I think any team would ever go and be that arrogant that you say we are going to go through the season unbeaten when you know the games that you have got to come around the corner,” he deflected the other day to Irish media.
Rightly so. As much as people are salivating over the momentum Leo Cullen’s squad have generated in registering ten wins in succession in the league and clinching their European pool with four straight triumphs in that tournament, their express train-like start to the season isn’t even the best in their club’s history.
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RugbyPass went behind the scenes when Leinster won the 2018 Guinness PRO14 final in Dublin
Way back in 2001/02, when the Celtic League first came into being, a Leinster side under Matt Williams galloped all the way through to 15 successive victories.
At a time when the league only required a half-season to complete, they had become the inaugural winners of that tournament, defeating Munster in a rip-roaring December showpiece at the old Lansdowne Road. But the hype that they would go on and seamlessly double up was crushed at precisely this same juncture of the European season the class of 2019/20 are now ready to embrace.
Logistics did for them back in the day. Inclement weather twice cancelled their round five match at Newcastle, a fixture that eventually went ahead at a deserted Headingley in Leeds on a Tuesday night. A fraught 17-15 win was secured in front of a paltry 1,146 attendance and rather than head back to Dublin, with preparation time now in short supply they instead went direct from England to France where they dramatically imploded.
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Leinster is already up 26-0 here but after the Munster-Leinster clash was also starved of stars, have to think something is going on here. Is Irish Rugby sandbagging for the 2020 Six Nations after their disappointing World Cup? ??#irishrugby #leinster #connacht #sixnations #6nations #ireland #ulsterrugby #munsterrugby
Toulouse trounced them 43-7, leaving them with an away quarter-final at Leicester a fortnight later and not a home game in Dublin. They were duly eliminated and while 18 years have since passed, the abrupt way that 15-match winning streak was shattered remains a sharp reminder that things don’t always run smoothly in rugby, even when it looks like you are at the top of your game.
Leinster have clearly been ahead of the curve so far this term in so many ways. Whereas the league leaders in England and France – Exeter and Bordeaux – have each lost twice in the respective Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 competitions, Leinster have been supreme in marrying the demands of the PRO14 with their European ambitions in a World Cup season.
Fifty players have been utilised in negotiating their schedule, 43 as match starters, but they know well there is still work to be done even though they are way ahead of so many past campaigns.
Starting brightly has traditionally been a fraught Leinster problem. In ten of the 18 seasons since that 2001/02 benchmark, they were beaten in the first match of the season so there was never much of a chance to reprise that type of an all-conquering run.
Even in their majestic double-winning season of 2017/18, they were picked off in just their fourth outing that term, losing down at Cheetahs in the league, and while they can now take great pride in already being qualified for this season’s European quarter-finals, they can’t really take their eye off the wheel either.
It was during the Williams era that Leinster memorably came up with DNFUJ, a ‘Do Not F*** Up January’ acronym that used to adorn their dressing room walls.
"Strong scrum, strong lineout, well-coached, great on the counter-attack."
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) January 7, 2020
Its importance hasn’t lessened in any way in the interim, Lancaster posting a reminder the other day about how an unexpected round six draw at Castres in 2017 saw them tumble from No1 to No4 in the knockout stage rankings.
That failing cost them home semi-final advantage and resulted in them being beaten by Clermont in Lyon, the city whose team are now ironically Dublin-bound this weekend.
That was the type of harsh lesson which is keeping soarway Leinster honest, ensuring talk about an unbeaten season just doesn’t merit being entertained in any way just yet.
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