McGahan and Cheika focused on dodging any nasty slip-ups
Bosses steel boys in red and blue to avoid any post-christmas surprises
Published 12/01/2010 | 05:00
After the climactic thaw, expect a blizzard of verbal volleys from the leading Irish Heineken Cup contenders this week, banishing any hints of complacency as they prepare to face the competition's minnows.
It's a week when a high band of clichés will sweep through provincial press rooms, instructing fans to bow to the irrelevance of the formbook -- watch as it flies out of the window! -- and the meteorological certainty that any prevailing weather conditions will be the same for both teams.
And without stating the obvious, Leinster and Munster both face must-win ties. (We're open to suggestions as to what constitutes a must-lose match).
The Heineken Cup holders are at home to Brive, whose reluctant attitude to playing away from home is perhaps the only characteristic that distinguishes French clubs from their country's stereotypical males.
Brive's recent Top 14 form illustrates this; a stunning home win against champions Perpignan was followed by a squeaky away win against the only side, Albi, one can authoritatively say are already doomed to relegation. Last month, they shipped a half-century in Clermont yet beat Toulouse at home. So predictably unpredictable.
Add to the mix the fact that Leinster have also had a fortnight of inactivity and you can see one of two things developing -- either a frustrating inability to hit their straps when the curtains go up on Saturday night or, more likely than not, a barely concealed desire to ride roughshod over their fitful opponents.
Still, the task is infected with a modicum of uncertainty. Their Munster rivals will be feeling a similar sense of anxiety, as any Heineken Cup contender must the moment they enter passport control.
On the face of it, their return trip to Treviso ought not to be accompanied by any sense of nervousness, especially after their thunderously compelling effort last time out in the Heineken Cup against Perpignan.
And yet, much more so than the more admirably consistent Leinster side this term, Munster's uncanny vacillations in form between the sublime and ridiculous allows only the most short-sighted supporters to dismiss any sense of peril about the journey.
As they have already gathered from their home joust with the spirited Italians, the only thing they will take for granted is that at the end of the day it will get dark.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Treviso had two tries in the bag and led after 25 minutes last October, the impending fantasy was supplanted by graphic reality as the favourites cruised to a 41-10 win.
Munster's poor form at that time, especially on the floor, perhaps laid the gruelling path towards December's thrilling release in the Stade Aime Giral. We may never know.
Munster have been in the Stadio Comunale di Monigo before -- six years ago, in fact, when current Leinster technical consultant Alan Gaffney was helming the squad's then still unrequited yearning for European success.
Munster had scuttled the Italians 51-0 in Limerick before Christmas and were hungrily eyeing up a home quarter-final; their last home game with Bourgoin was, all confidently concluded, another inevitable "five-pointer".
Munster did get their five points but it was about as messy as a spaghetti-eating toddler. Only Manuel Dallan's late binning allowed Munster the leverage to splutter beyond the winning post.
"We were poor, a bit lucky," said Gaffney of the 31-20 win. "We went there thinking it was all going to happen automatically but it doesn't work like that. We gave the players a bit of a hard time afterwards and so did the likes of Anthony Foley, saying we can't serve this shit up and expect to win the competition."
They couldn't and they didn't -- Lansdowne Road defeat to Wasps in one of the Heineken Cup's matches of the decade would prolong their ascension to Europe's summit.
Then, as now, Treviso had also beaten the qualifying pool's French occupants, then erratic Bourgoin, now French champions but meekly surrendering European combatants Perpignan, whose campaign's first cracks appeared on that opening weekend.
"I have the impression that we don't have the same spirit that we had last year," said hooker Marius Tincu after the stunning opening day 9-8 reverse. "I don't know where it's gone, but over the weekend we touched bottom. We thought it would be easy, we were wrong."
In truth, they never recovered. Munster will be keen to avoid a similar mental lapse this weekend.
Within the past fortnight, Treviso have been shocked at home to promoted Prato and, last weekend, shipped a defeat in Padova which has dramatically altered the Super 10 title race. Conspiracy theorists may suggest they are eyeing another scare.
"Treviso will be game fit and are coming off some good results in the Heineken Cup," says Munster coach, Tony McGahan. "We'll be okay organisation-wise. The biggest concern for us is getting the contact work into play.
"I don't have a lot of concern for those who have been playing for a fair bit but look at someone like Paul O'Connell, he has played only two matches in the last seven weeks. This week is huge for us as is next week."
Leinster's coach Michael Cheika is equally focused, already predicting that his side won't countenance a potential derailment like the almost catastrophic defeat in Castres last season.
Then, what didn't kill their Heineken Cup chances made them stronger. They can ill-afford to repeat the trick.
"I am not worried about it," Cheika said. "In fact, we will take the positives out of the sort of situation we have been in before. It is a long season and the break has provided the chance for our players to freshen up ahead of two huge Heineken Cup matches."
As snow turns to slush all over the country, the warnings remain consistent. Avoid any unnecessary slip-ups.