Tuesday 26 September 2017

Double jeopardy as Euro hopefuls go to war

Expect 'special games with special atmosphere' and 'extra spice' in pivotal double-headers

Maruis Tincu, centre, Perpignan, attempts to separate team-mate Jerome Schuster and Munster's Denis Fogarty. Heineken Cup Pool 1 Round 4, Perpignan v Munster, Stade Aime Giral, Perpignan, France
Maruis Tincu, centre, Perpignan, attempts to separate team-mate Jerome Schuster and Munster's Denis Fogarty. Heineken Cup Pool 1 Round 4, Perpignan v Munster, Stade Aime Giral, Perpignan, France
David Kelly

David Kelly

In the Heineken Cup, familiarity can breed contempt.

Just ask the suits at loggerheads trying to save the current edition from extinction. On the field, it is no different.

But as the best club competition in world rugby prepares for its traditional December double-headers, getting up close and personal is not always a negative concept.

Familiarity can breed content, too.

As the leading sides jockey for pole position, both Ulster and Leinster are in pole position in their pools, while Connacht are all but doomed given what looms large in front of them.

Typically, Munster, forging another familiar Heineken Cup tradition, seem destined to be involved in another final-day shootout – in their pool, two points separate the four sides, who have all won and lost a game each.

The next fortnight, though, could shuffle the pack significantly. This time last season, eight clubs achieved back-to-back successes, maintaining the quotient that normally sees half of the ties ending up in two wins for one team.

It wasn't necessarily a boon for Ireland, though; Leinster all but ceded their title defence while Munster and Ulster both coughed up advantages that would have secured each a vitally important money-spinning home quarter-final.

Indeed, the second leg of last season's back-to-back tiers represented the first time in the history of the tournament that all four Irish clubs lost on the same Heineken Cup weekend. (Three – Leinster, Munster and Ulster – were all defeated in Round 6 during the 2006/07 season.) .

It's all about the numbers in rugby's congested equivalent of golfing Majors' "moving Saturday", when teams can make or break their title challenges; nobody can win the title in December but they can certainly lose their chance to win it.

In the past four Heineken Cup seasons, Leicester Tigers are the only club to have reached the last eight without winning one of the crucial back-to-back matches.

In 2010/11, the two-time tournament champions secured a losing bonus point in a 24-19 away loss to Perpignan and then drew 22-22 with the Catalans at Welford Road.

Leicester went on to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the best pool runners-up with 22 points, but their total of three points from the games in Rounds 3 and 4 remains the lowest of any club to have reached the knockout stages since 2009.

In the 2009/10 season, Stade Francais Paris managed to top Pool 4 and book themselves a coveted spot in the last eight with a relatively modest four-point haul from the back-to-back games.

After losing 23-13 to Ulster at Ravenhill in Round 3, Stade then took the honours 29-16 without a bonus point in the return leg at Stade Jean Bouin.

Of the other 22 clubs who reached the quarter-finals in the previous three seasons, each garnered at least five points from the back-to-backs.

This usually means that, aside from the dream scenario of compiling back-to-back wins, contenders will usually want to assure themselves of a home win while picking up something on the road.

Playing the same team on successive weekends offers a unique challenge; the faces remain the same but the sides' approach can differ on each outing (particularly when French).

Teams benefit from being able to overload on analysis but there can also be a suffocating nature to the contests, with running battles hanging over from one week to the next, and it is easy for tactical stalemates to occur.

SPECIAL

"These back-to-back games are always special in your season because you're facing into each other again and there is obviously a hangover over what has happened the first time," according to former Munster back-rower Denis Leamy.

"You don't have the luxury of two or three months having played each other for things to die down and for things to be forgotten about. Things are very much fresh in the mind. They're always special games with their own special atmosphere."

His former Munster team-mate Donncha O'Callaghan concurs.

"The back-to-backs have all sorts of elements. There's things you remember that were said on both sides that carry on to the next week," says O'Callaghan.

"There are little things that normally happen but you usually have two or three months before the next time and you usually forget about them.

"It's a real test. It's a great aspect of the competition. You've to bring the best out of you as a team two weeks in a row. Everything you show the week before has to be of top quality.

"Because in the second week then, you need to be getting some bang for your buck on it. Because if you didn't perform something well, it will get exposed.

"Over two weeks, quality teams will expose you in the end if you haven't got good game plans and good defensive systems. If you're not sharp, you'll be exposed in the second week for sure."

Leinster discovered this against Clermont last season, when successive defeats to the then French champions virtually ensured that it would be impossible for them to emerge from the pool stages, despite a last-gasp points chase on the final day in Exeter.

"You know them really well when you are playing them two weeks in a row," agrees Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin.

"There is extra spice in the fixtures. By the time you play them the second time around, you are ready for the tricks they used the week before and you are second guessing each other in terms of preparation. It is a great part of the Heineken Cup, these back-to-backs."

The back-to-back rounds were first introduced along with the current format of six pools of four teams in the 1999-2000 season.

That season, Munster earned consecutive wins over Colomiers en route to their debut final appearance via a home quarter-final earned as pool winners; Leinster lost out due to their inferior share of match points in the head-to-head against Stade.

Emerging with a better points difference, particularly if facing a leading group rival, is a vital component of these double headers which are much more exciting than their often dour and listless Champions League equivalents,

Predominantly, quarter-final qualifiers will have emerged from these games with a superior head-to-head record, whether via match points, try tallies or points aggregate.

Not doing so is inimical to one's qualification health.

In the last 14 seasons, Munster have completed eight doubles in December.

Five times, they won the away leg first then went on to complete the double at home a week later; they would much prefer that sequence this time around, particularly as they will visit a still highly motivated Perpignan in Thomond Park this weekend.

Even on the occasions they traded wins with their December opponents, Munster always emerged with a superior head-to-head record over the two games, albeit they and Saracens finished 28-28 with the same tries total this time last season.

Pertinently, Munster have been here with Perpignan before.

In the 2009/10 season, Munster scrambled to a 24-23 win against the Catalans despite being outscored 3-0 in tries, before travelling to Stade Aime Giral a week later and securing an incredible 37-14 bonus-point win.

Leinster have struggled in comparison; six times they have won double headers but on seven other occasions, they won only one fixture before, last season, losing both fixtures, when being pooled with the mighty Clermont proved to be a bridge too far.

Ulster's poor qualification rate in the noughties was undone by poor December outings but their record here has improved since their belated return to the knockout stages in 2011.

And so, as the race to the top intensifies, and numbers are crunched again and again, it's worth considering that since the 2003/04 season when bonus points were introduced, no club has qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals as a pool winner on less than 17 points, and no club has qualified as one of the two best runners-up on less than 19 points.

Also, no club has qualified for the knockout stages with less than four wins.

Christmas can come early for competing clubs in the Heineken Cup over the next two fascinating weekends.

Irish Independent

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