Post-freeze bonus would be perfect
Published 16/01/2010 | 05:00
Talk to any coach at any level and he'll cite the opening games of the season as the ones he's most apprehensive about. All the 'quality' training in the world isn't worth a tuppenny curse when measured against the real thing.
Similarly, most coaches will have a fair degree of concern as they lead their charges back into competitive action this weekend following the recent freeze-out.
In terms of conditioning, there'll be no issue. The real worry will have been the inability to replicate match conditions on the training paddock, being restricted to either indoor or artificial playing pitches.
Fortunately, though, for Munster and Leinster today, the pool fixtures have fallen relatively well.
As with the Six Nations, the Italians are also the whipping boys of the Heineken Cup, despite the improvement suggested by Benetton Treviso's shock win over Perpignan in the first round.
Treviso will present stiff opposition at the Stadio Comunale Di Monigo, but forewarned should be forearmed for any team with genuine title-winning aspirations. Talk of the bonus point is dangerous, but going to Treviso and doing the business is not.
The main problem for Tony McGahan, like most every other mentor, is both psychological and practical: rest v rust. The hunger will be there after almost a month's match-day inactivity, but how long will it take to get up to European speed?
Today's match is huge for Treviso and the Italian game in general. I support the need for a Magners League representation, but until the Italians, much like the Argentinians, get a meaningful domestic structure in place, thereby keeping the best of the indigenous talent at home, they are going nowhere.
The Six Nations needs a much stronger Italy. The one near certainty again this year is that they will finish last, with the quest for a win of any kind the only motivation to keep them going.
It's got to be better than that. I long for the day again (remember Treviso in '95 and Bologna in '97) when the Irish team and supporters travel to Italy in trepidation and with some element of doubt as to the result.
But for Munster today it's about making a professional statement. A bonus-point win would take McGahan's side to 20 points ahead of the Thomond Park showdown with Northampton -- the Ospreys and Toulouse qualified as runners-up on that total last year.
Of course, the objective is to have qualification in their own hands and, with it, a home game in the last eight, but returning from Italy with the 20-point mark achieved, would ease the pressure in the build-up to next week's game.
McGahan will be particularly disappointed that the bad weather prevented him from trying out various combinations in the Magners League, notably the centre pairing of Keith Earls and Jean de Villiers and the revised back-row featuring David Wallace at No 8 in place of the injured Denis Leamy.
While it's encouraging to see De Villiers visibly buying into the Munster culture and supporting it with recent form, there has to be concern in the camp still as to the most comfortable chemistry in midfield.
De Villiers is playing well and brings a direct, gain-line-breaking presence to midfield, but Lifeimi Mafi appears, for whatever reason, to be suffering on the back of it.
We are also waiting for Earls to burst out of a somewhat subdued shell.
Today, given the reasonably good playing conditions forecast, opportunity knocks for those two to nail their positions ahead of the Northampton pool finale.
When they lifted the trophy in '06, they had the bludgeon and the rapier, in the guise of Trevor Halstead and either Barry Murphy or John Kelly, picking up the off-load pieces.
In '08 it was a different midfield tack, with Mafi and Rua Tipoki presenting all sorts of problems for the most well-drilled of defences.
That is the call still to be made now. Will it be De Villiers and Earls/Mafi or will he opt for Earls and Mafi, as per all-singing, all-dancing '08?
For Leinster, there no such problems. Apart from an embarrassment of back-row riches, with the returning Shane Jennings relegating the outstanding Sean O'Brien to the bench, it's pretty straightforward for Michael Cheika.
I'm not so sure that Brive will be too interested. They are, along with Viadana, the only team with zero points from four games.
Thoughts of Bourgoin in '04 (remember 92-17, but just a three-point winning margin seven days later in France) certainly come to mind.
Like Munster, Leinster have the opportunity to take their points total to the magical 20 mark ahead of next week's trip to Twickenham for what should prove the pool-deciding game.
With the greatest of respect to Treviso and Brive, each should provide the type of opposition ideal in the build-up to the bigger and harder pool-defining games to come.
With bonus-point victories, the safety-net could be in place. More importantly, the way would be clear for the '08 and '09 winners to take the stage in Limerick and London at full throttle and most significantly, with their quarter-final destiny entirely in their own hands.