Leinster set for another jolly season
T'IS the season to be irritated. It's not Christmas, per se... deck the halls all you want. No, it's the office parties that set teeth to grind mode as they descend upon city-centre pubs with a whooping air of novelty and enthusiasm.
There's always the 'mad' fellah with the Santa hat and tie -- that self-appointed 'life and soul' who insists on buying a round of shots only to be found a few minutes later swaying incredulously at the counter asking 'HOW much?' in front of a jaded barman whose eyes are by now permanently rolling to heaven.
Santa hats are unfailingly annoying (just wear a T-shirt saying 'I swear, I AM a gas ticket') but are nothing compared to the maudlin sing-songs that ensue once the third Baby Guinness has kicked in. Unless you have paid for a ticket to hear live music, you do not deserve to be shushed in your local while some fluthered young one butchers a Christy Moore ballad.
There was plenty of irritation, and butchering, in Bath last Sunday. Bath is a beautiful city which boasts the most picturesque ground on the European circuit but, as a modern venue suitable for Heineken Cup rugby, 'The Wreck' leaves a lot to be desired.
'Press box' is a generous description for the reporting facilities -- 'tree house' would be more appropriate. The media are required, no word of a lie, to scale a six-foot vertical ladder before squashing, battery-hen style, onto a wooden bench robbed from 'Tom Brown's Schooldays'.
The post-match functions on Sunday were carried out in a tent on the back pitch -- quaint enough if the weather is fine but with the field descending to Glastonbury quagmire proportions as the rain hammered against the canvas, hardly the most suitable venue for post-match press conferences.
Indeed, the deluge became so biblical, one unfortunate was cowed to the extent of missing his flight home from Bristol (to be fair, Tom Crean wouldn't have stepped out of the tent at that point).
None of which should irritate Leinster or their supporters. They will have been more troubled by the try chances squandered in a match that was far hairier for the champions than it needed to be.
However, for all the subsequent navel-gazing and video recrimination, it was not the worst outcome for Joe Schmidt's men. Dogging out a win away from home, despite spurning those opportunities, gave a welcome focus in a week where complacency could easily have set in.
Desperate, almost to the point of paranoia, to avoid the dangers of 'second-season syndrome', Leinster have been at pains to steer clear of any perception of over-confidence in the build-up to their European outings but, in truth, they are in an excellent position.
The depth of Leinster's squad allows for almost seamless rotation and, while the execution was lacking on Sunday, the intent was where it needed to be.
The breakdown was an issue (attributable in part to enigmatic refereeing) and Bath enjoyed more possession than their talents merited but, all in all, Leinster winning away against a side playing probably as well as they have all season while only hitting 60pc themselves suggests they are ready to kick on from last season.
Compare it with Northampton. The Saints came into this season's competition resolving to atone for their second-half capitulation, when they threw away a 16-point half-time lead, to Leinster in last season's Heineken Cup final.
In their first outing in Limerick, they were hugely impressive in every area, only to be undone by Munster's incredible force of will and that remarkable strike from Ronan O'Gara.
The psychological ramifications were enormous and Northampton are now out of the competition, with the calls for Jim Mallinder to take over England gone very quiet and their star players forced to turn their attentions elsewhere -- Chris Ashton has brought out a book (no, it's not a pop-up).
Meanwhile, though they would hate to acknowledge it, Leinster are perfectly poised to launch a significant title defence. They are joint favourites with Toulouse for the trophy, which looks about right, and it is hard to see them missing out on a home quarter-final at Lansdowne Road.
That ground will be full of Santa hats tomorrow evening, which is fair enough -- a festive atmosphere would be a fitting backdrop for a Leinster backlash which promises to be truly spectacular.
Just as long as there is no shushing for 'Black Is The Colour' later on... or that hat is going where Santa don't sleigh.