What price an irish treble?
Published 15/01/2011 | 05:00
There was a time when Leinster could talk the talk better than anybody -- all bluster in the build-up, but with little to support it when backs were to the wall.
I even remember a young and extremely naive Jamie Heaslip getting sucked into the "what we're going to do to Wasps on Saturday" rhetoric before a Heineken Cup quarter-final at Adams Park some years ago.
For the record, the High Wycombe-based Londoners cruised through
35-13 by way of a visiting forward performance about which the less said the better.
In fairness, lessons were learned and a corner turned, so when it was time to return to London at the same stage (this time to the 'Bloodgate' Stoop two years on), Leinster Rugby was in a different mental place.
They would not admit it, but under Michael Cheika (the original loose cannon himself in his early days), they took on board the 'Munster way' whereby everything focused on the match-day 'walk.'
By deeds not words would they be portrayed in the media. The rationale, though simple and obvious, was based on the premise of not giving the opposition the remotest psychological advantage.
Leinster and Munster now run parallel in terms of guarded respect for the opposition. It is not alone the right approach, but the only one. Any loose and disrespectful talk this week has come from France by way of barbs from Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal and Biarritz coach Jean Michel Gonzalez aimed at Munster and Ulster (the Irish 'refereeing cousin' jibe) respectively.
It makes good copy for us in the Fourth Estate, but in terms of piling on unnecessary pressure, it's not the smartest way to go. Bear in mind it is only Round 5 of the qualifying phase and already interest is at fever pitch. On the field it is 'must win' territory and that includes table-topping Leinster, first into action at the RDS this afternoon.
Were Saracens to repeat their win on the road (in Paris in the last round) and were Racing to take the points at (a possibly disinterested) Clermont Auvergne, it would make for a final round 'winner takes all' pool decider in Racing. That, I can assure you, is the last thing the 2009 champions need or want.
While not for one minute underestimating the Saracens threat, to lose today would be tantamount to disaster. The groundwork has been laid, with far too much blood and sweat going into the back-to-back Clermont games to blow it now.
Win today and, irrespective of the all-French head-to-head in Clermont, it would make that final trip to France so much more manageable. I believe that Leo Cullen and the rest have all the right ingredients to go the whole way. Even in the enforced absence of Rob Kearney and Heaslip they have strength in depth in reserve.
The full-back issue is becoming a very real problem for Declan Kidney ahead of the Six Nations, but tempting though it is to request Luke Fitzgerald play at No 15, the former Leinster and Munster coach is sensitive enough to appreciate that for the provinces this Heineken Cup Round 5 is of crucial importance.
The Leinster back three selection of Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan and Fergus McFadden is bold, but difficult to argue with. To ask Joe Schmidt to change it around would be most unfair in the circumstances.
For Ulster this is the pool position they have craved for over a decade. Qualification is in their own hands, irrespective of the quality of opposition. It is on days like this they must step up to the plate. Ravenhill will be awash with colour and atmosphere. Their form has been hit and miss and nowhere near what it should be given the quality of their South African imports.
To that, add Ian Humphreys, who for me brings a different attacking dynamic to the side. Along with Ruan Pienaar they exude confidence at half-back, but the winning and losing as ever will be dictated up front.
The Imanol Harinordoquy/Dimitri Yachvili inspired Biarritz travel to Belfast in much the same vein as Munster go to Toulon in search of success in a competition they have come to embrace and dare not exit short of the knockout phase. This is a crossroads for Ulster if ever there was 0ne. For Biarritz at Ravenhill, read Munster on the road in Toulon.
The London Irish game in Limerick in a week's time could be rendered meaningless by the result tomorrow. Put simply, it is a game they cannot afford to lose. It is Perpignan revisited. Munster are, as Donncha O'Callaghan suggests, "fighting for their very lives" in the competition and it will, as he so rightly adds, necessitate "moving beyond the comfort zone".
It is the type of refreshing honesty that bonds players with fans, so when Munster players talk they know they must back it up with performance.
Toulon have a player-rich, cash-rich squad representing nine different countries. Munster are drawn from just three -- but they are what they are because of that. Provided the scrum holds, Paul O'Connell fires and Ronan O'Gara does what he does best, Munster are in with more than a fighting chance. As with the other two, it is a must win match which could swing either way. No doubt there is an element of the heart ruling the head but I really believe all three Irish sides have it within their power to win, albeit in Munster's case on the road.
What price three Irish wins?