Time for irish hopefuls to make their mark on kidney
MONTY made much about the importance of early momentum ahead of the Ryder Cup showdown at Celtic Manor last weekend. It is a principle that applies to every sport -- hit the competition running and who knows where it might lead.
And so it is with the Heineken Cup as the most exciting rugby competition on the planet kicks into gear. A good start, if not quite half the battle, can still prove a massive boost along the way.
True, Munster may not always prove the quickest out of the blocks, but even when they lose first time out, they invariably secure that precious bonus point by finishing within seven at the death.
Like Toulouse and Leicester, they are the European master craftsmen when the chips are really down. Their record away to English Premiership sides, particularly in the opening series, is not good and yet the most remarkable bottom line has been qualification for the knock-out stages every season since 1997/1998. It is an extraordinary record by an extraordinary team.
Nor has the draw been kind this time round. London Irish currently lead the way in the English Premiership. They showed what they could do at the corresponding stage at the RDS a year ago so, hopefully, on the back of that Leinster experience, allied to four wins out of five in the English competition, forewarned is forearmed for the Reds going into the Madejski minefield this afternoon.
London Irish coach Toby Booth may be playing down the Exiles' European aspirations but, deep down, he knows that opportunity knocks today in Reading.
The loss of Tomas O'Leary to Munster is massive. Peter Stringer continues to be the best-passing scrum-half Irish rugby has ever produced, but O'Leary he is not. The physicality in defence and threat around the fringes, which O'Leary presents as a matter of course, will be badly missed. Stringer will bring is his trademark quickfire service but, on last week's depressing evidence at the Aviva, it is difficult to see where it will lead.
All told, it makes for an intriguing call on the part of coach Tony McGahan. Does he look to stretch the Exiles from touchline to touchline or does he revert to the type of percentage rugby the southern province do better than anybody? I suspect it will be the latter but with the proviso that Ronan O'Gara does not concede the line-out throw too often or too cheaply, given the potency of Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy out of touch.
Few teams re-energise better than Munster. Rest assured last week is already consigned to history, albeit with lessons learned. Would I bet against them turning it around when it really matters this afternoon?
Not on your nelly.
It has all the relevant ingredients to be the top tie of the opening round.
Lifeimi Mafi will be missed, but he is a lucky man. And, while I am pleased to see the Munster management had the good sense and equally good grace not to appeal, I still feel the Tongan centre got off lightly, given the nature and intent in the tackle. The more I see it, the uglier it gets.
Indeed, talking to so many of my Munster contemporaries as we gathered to lay Mossie Keane to rest, I was reassured by the depth of anger felt almost to a man at what Mafi did.
The general consensus was for a 12-week suspension at least.
Buoyed by last week's win it will be a much more confident Leinster first into action at the RDS (kick-off 1.30) today. Much like Munster, the 2009 champions appear in a Pool of Death this time round. Starting with Racing Metro, and with Clermont and Saracens to follow, it looks like a rugged route in which a bonus point here or bonus point there could make all the difference. One thing is for sure for all four in this extremely difficult pool, winning at home is imperative.
Naturally Leinster, like Munster, will be lining out as close to full strength as injuries permit. The Heineken Cup is a step up from Magners League and is as close to Test rugby intensity as it can get. So, over the next fortnight, those with genuine aspirations of forcing their way into Declan Kidney's plans for the November Internationals need to show form.
In effect, these opening Heineken Cup forays (and Amlin Challenge Cup games) will constitute a final trial for the Autumn Internationals. Kidney and his management team will be in attendance at eight venues over the coming weeks scrutinising the form of all with Ireland ambitions.
Success among the European club elite invariably transfers to the international stage. Thus, it would make life so much easier for the national coach if our Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup contingent were to hit this opening fortnight with a vengeance.
Despite the break Down Under, the suspicion is that the Tri Nations sides are way ahead in terms of speed and intensity. These two ultra-competitive weekends will provide the opportunity for the Northern Hemisphere to ratchet everything up a few notches. Expect it to be grabbed greedily by all concerned.
When, if ever, has this incredible competition disappointed?
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