Alan Quinlan: Beating Leicester could be the making of Foley's side - just like it was in 2003
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
There's a lot of responsibility riding on the shoulders of the Munster players and management this weekend.
After such a promising start to the season they are facing the prospect of a third consecutive defeat in a fortnight; their second loss in Thomond Park in that same time period; and a likely exit from the Champions Cup before the knockout stages.
But on the flip side, a win in this game could be just the injection of confidence that this team needs to go on to bigger and better things.
A couple of years ago it would have been unthinkable that the three Irish provinces would be underdogs to get out of their European pools ahead of the third round of games. By tomorrow evening I think Leinster could be out of the competition after facing this mammoth Toulon outfit; Ulster's home defeat to Saracens could still undo their mazing win over Toulouse; so I think it's up to Munster to pull off what might be regarded as a surprise win this evening.
It's never acceptable for Munster to lose at Thomond Park so the defeat to Connacht in Limerick a couple of weeks back had the murmurs of discontent flowing from the locals. Last week's error-strewn defeat away to Dragons did little to quench the doubts and as a result Anthony Foley and his coaches are now under severe pressure. They need a win today just as much as the players.
But we have to get real here too. It's 2007-08 since Munster have remained unbeaten for a full season of competitive games at Thomond Park. A lot of teams have come to Limerick in that time and won league and European games. The aura of invincibility that was once there is no longer a factor.
And it was Leicester Tigers that started that gradual descent. They inflicted the first European defeat on Munster at Thomond Park back in 2006-07 and since then we've seen Harlequins (Challenge Cup), Ulster and Clermont all leave with the spoils in Europe.
It's hard to put your finger on what the big difference between then and now is, but visiting teams came to Thomond Park with a genuine fear of facing us and our intimidating crowd.
For sure, the newly redeveloped ground is a massively different place; and we had a more experienced squad back then, packed with internationals and players of real character that could drag us over the line when it got tough.
But the Thomond Park crowd maybe had more of a debilitating impact on our visitors than it gave us inspiration - even though we always got plenty from the crowd.
I remember top internationals crumbling under the pressure, watching a Garryowen drop from the sky as they lost the ability to recall even the most basics of skills, such was the pressure they felt in Thomond.
Nowadays with the advent of sports psychology players can block a lot of that out: every ground in the world is treated the same, and they no longer are afraid of taking on baying crowds like that.
But it has been a while since I heard that noise too. Last season after that defeat to Clermont the silence was deafening. Two weeks back the Connacht contingent were the noisier bunch. It's a hard ground to fill when things aren't going your way.
But I don't blame the Munster fans either. They have to be given something to shout about. It's very hard to back your team if they are producing some half-hearted effort like that first half against Pat Lam's side.
I hate harping back to how things were 'in my day', but I think it's pertinent in this instance. We never relied on the atmosphere at the old Thomond Park to get us going. We always knew that it was our job to lift the mood, to start well and to tear into the opposition.
It's vital that Munster get out of the blocks this evening and put in a relentless 80-minute display. If they don't, they have little hope of winning this one.
I missed that 2007 defeat because of suspension and it made for a real horror show to be watching from the stands. As defending Heineken Cup champions, I was stunned to see a team come and conquer Thomond Park and I hated the fact that I couldn't do anything about it.
That win was based on a typical Leicester game-plan - they took us on up front and won the battle of the breakdown and the set-piece. Richard Cockerill was their forwards coach back then, so as head coach now, he won't be shy in reminding his squad about the vulnerability of Thomond Park this week.
Of all the teams that played there, Leicester are the only side with a 100pc record at and they'll be keen to retain that.
Cockerill was a real hard-nosed guy on the pitch, a fella that I had a couple of run-ins with. He played the game on the edge, he got in your face, but was a decent fella after the full-time whistle. Leicester were full of lads like that, and we always had a huge amount of respect for them.
You might imagine that we hated the sight of them after what Neil Back did to Peter Stringer in the 2002 final, but we didn't. They carried themselves like winners, they had an air of superiority and it was as if it was an insult to them that we even thought we could win that day.
But pushing them close and taking on that pack of eight English internationals gave us the belief that we could go on another step and win the competition. And the meeting of the sides the following season was one of the most important games in the development of our team.
That 2003 Leicester team was full of guys that would go on and win a World Cup later that year, but we dismantled then in the quarter-final on their home patch. They were champions and we dethroned them at Welford Road. I'm sure they enjoyed doing it back to us in 2007.
That game inspired us, though. We believed we were a match for anyone after that, and although it was another three years before we got our hands on the Heineken Cup, in my opinion a lot of our success stemmed from those two games with Leicester.
And this Munster team needs a win like that. Beating top teams builds character and creates characters. It gives you the belief that you can improve, that you can beat the best if you give it everything.
I firmly believe that Munster can win today if they throw the shackles off and tear into these guys. I'm pretty sure Munster cannot win the Champions Cup this season and I think they will do well to reach the knock-out stages, but why not take one of those gradual steps of improvement today?
Denying Premiership sides a European whitewash on Irish soil this season would be a mighty fine start.