Perpignan model key to Munster's route to Paris
When Brian O'Driscoll and Co set out for Paris in February, it was the game set to decide the Six Nations. The French turned up, but we didn't and the Irish supporters left the stadium disappointed, but hardly devastated by yet another Parisian defeat.
As a nation we all basked in the glory of 2009. But if we are brutally honest, Ireland winning, though undoubtedly good for national morale, pales when compared to the deeds of the provincial sides and specifically those in the Heineken Cup.
Now in its 15th season, the Heineken Cup is quite simply the best thing ever to happen rugby in this part of the world and the biggest benefit from the game going professional.
The original Super 10 may have paved the way and expansive though Super rugby was and still is, there is that tribal ingredient -- that sense of identity -- missing from the southern hemisphere's premier event when compared to the European equivalent. For travelling Leinster and Munster supporters, winning today and tomorrow in Toulouse and San Sebastian respectively, really matters.
Initially, the Heineken Cup, like the Super 14, bridged the gap between club/provincial rugby and the Test arena. Now the gap has closed entirely. The spotlight and audience is greater at international level, but talk to any Test player involved in the Heineken Cup, particularly in the knock-out stages, and they will tell you the difference is negligible, if at all.
The World Cup naturally tops the lot, but the Heineken is at least on a par with, if not now ahead of, the Tri Nations and Six Nations in terms of interest, excitement and, more than anything, a passion bordering on the fanatical. This weekend has been awaited with bated breath, particularly for the French and Irish sporting public. Even those with minimal rugby interest are aware of the two huge games.
Leinster travel to Toulouse as champions, but theirs is by far the more difficult semi. The 41-35 home defeat in 2006 has been cited by various Toulouse players as a prime motivation ahead of today's showdown. I'm not too sure they need it. The past is the past.
Of more immediate concern for Leinster is the absence of Jonathan Sexton. He is already the guiding influence that Ronan O'Gara has been for Munster over so many years. Much has been made of the input of Rocky Elsom to last season's success -- and the Wallaby skipper's contribution was undeniable -- but it was Sexton's pivotal presence that ultimately sealed the deal.
Shaun Berne has proved a significant signing as utility cover. He has stepped in for Sexton with assurance before and will no doubt do so again today. However, it is on big days like this the difference in game management tells. I hope I am wrong, but I fear today's demands may prove a hurdle too high.
On the plus side, compared to '06 when Toulouse played right into their hands by running everything from everywhere, this time Leinster are much better equipped to meet a more measured forward assault. Four years ago Felipe Contepomi, Brian O'Driscoll and Denis Hickie ran riot, with all-action Keith Gleeson the continuity key. Now they can play it either way, but I expect it to be far more physical and a lot less free-flowing than that memorable point-scoring fest.
There is too the Byron Kelleher factor.
With the Kiwi scrum-half the driving force, Toulouse now have pragmatic direction at half-back. His aggressive physicality is guaranteed to keep the Leinster back-row honest and that could spell trouble elsewhere. He could well prove the difference, but if ever opportunity knocked for Michael Cheika to become rugby's Jose Mourinho, this is it.
As for Munster? Write them off at your peril. Paul O'Connell's loss is massive -- in psychological as well as practical terms -- but they are so fortunate to have such a naturally talented and athletic stand-in as Mick O'Driscoll.
Along with Jerry Flannery, he is the most influential leader in the pack. More to the point, like O'Connell he is a 'doer' not an 'asker'. The call against Northampton was for others to step up to the mark and led by O'Gara, Flannery and O'Driscoll, they did.
That was on their own patch; this is on alien soil. Not for a minute are we underestimating Biarritz. They too have a string-pulling scrum-half, albeit of a different style entirely, in Dimitri Yachvili. Expect Alan Quinlan and Tomas O'Leary to get up his nose as only they can. The hosts also have the consummate play-making No 8 in Imanol Harinordoquy, the outstanding individual in the Six Nations by a mile.
However, the loss of Damien Traille is as big a blow to Biarritz as O'Connell's absence is to Munster.
That will be the positive thinking in the Munster camp. A repeat of the Perpignan mission is the model.
The smart money, though, is on an all-French Paris final. But there has to be room for at least one upset. That being the case, I'm looking to Munster.