Alan Quinlan on Champions Cup quarter-finals: Real leaders worth their weight in gold in tricky times like these

Peter O'Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Rory Best

Cockerill was a real tough b*****d on the field and he could take it as well as dish it out. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

thumbnail: Peter O'Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Rory Best
thumbnail: Cockerill was a real tough b*****d on the field and he could take it as well as dish it out. Photo:  Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

It's a smaller window than you might think. By the time you have recovered from the emotional and physical impact of a draining Six Nations, there aren't many days left to reintegrate, recalibrate and refocus on a European quarter-final.

Of course, if the international spring has concluded under grey clouds of disillusion, knockout rugby with your province is just about the best antidote for the gloom.

The transition from international to provincial rugby can be complex at the best of times; post-Six Nations, considering the extra scrutiny, there are even more mental hurdles to overcome.

This is when leaders can really prove their worth, making sure everyone - not just the internationals - is at the right pitch for a last-eight showdown.

We sometimes forget that professional rugby players are human too - heavy defeats and poor performances are bound to deflate individuals whose competitive spirit is such a key part of their make-up.


There has been plenty of talk about differing leadership styles in the build-up to Leinster v Ulster - the calm yet assertive presence of Rory Best versus the more outspoken, heated style of Johnny Sexton.

There is no right or wrong way to lead, as long as it brings the best out of those around you. Differing approaches have been used to great effect in business and politics, and sport is no different.

Paul O'Connell, Sexton and ROG would be more closely aligned with the Roy Keane School of Captaincy - spreading fear to raise the common bar.

Brian O'Driscoll, 'Axel' Foley, Mick Galwey and Jim Williams probably took a more measured, less frenzied, approach - much like Best with Ulster and Ireland.

The important thing is that the leader is effective, not how they go about their role.

In 2003, two weeks after being destroyed 42-6 by Martin Johnson and Co in a Dublin Grand Slam decider, few gave Munster a chance of becoming the third side to win at Welford Road in almost five years. We had already produced our 'Miracle Match' that season and as seventh seeds, having lost two of our six pool games, we were considerable underdogs, and that was before the Lansdowne Road mauling.

There were six Munster forwards in the Ireland match-day 22 in the Six Nations decider - eight in total with Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer - and five members of the England pack were of Leicester stock.

Ten of the 16 starting forwards at Welford Road had togged out in Dublin two weeks previously - Graham Rowntree missing out due to an injury that had ended his Grand Slam showdown prematurely.

Johnson, Ben Kay, Dorian West and our old friend Neil Back stood opposite us again among a formidable Leicester squad - they were Europe's top side at the time, going for three Heineken Cups in a row, and their England contingent were ably assisted by quality players like Martin Corry, Austin Healey, Geordan Murphy and Tim Stimpson.

The international heartache was not allowed to fester in the build-up to that quarter-final though. There was no licking of wounds. As far we were concerned, that damage had been inflicted upon a different body and mind.

You parked it and took comfort in your familiar Munster environment. And if you dared to drop the head you were soon picked back up by one, or all, of Axel, Jim Williams, Paulie, John Hayes or ROG.

At the time the rivalry was so deep-seated that Leicester shafted Munster fans with tickets that day.

My parents were in the crowd but it was nearly impossible to find them. There was no mass of red, as was the norm, our hosts ensuring the away fans were scattered around the ground to minimise their impact.

We stunned Leicester that day, though, and the revenge for Cardiff was so sweet. And even though we went on to be beaten 13-12 in the last four by Toulouse, that Welford Road success remains one of my career highlights.

The humbling loss to Johnson's England was irrelevant. It had been digested, it was a different cause.

Discarding such bitter defeats remains difficult though, and it would have been one of the bigger collective challenges facing Best, Sexton (despite his injury) and Peter O'Mahony over the past week.

For O'Mahony's Munster, maintaining focus, particularly around the tackle area, will be crucial this afternoon.

Any side under the influence of Richard Cockerill, who was in the middle of a two-year Montferrand sojourn when we stunned Leicester in '03, will mirror their coach - hardy and a touch mad.

Cockerill was a real tough b*****d on the field and he could take it as well as dish it out. Peter Clohessy gave him heavy treatment with the boot on one occasion and was going to be cited for the offence, but the hooker insisted he didn't want any punishment handed it out. It was part and parcel of the game in his eyes.

I've been surprised with how quickly he has got Edinburgh moving forward. It was no mean feat topping a Champions Cup pool that contained Montpellier and Toulon, even considering the short-circuiting at both French powerhouses.

Munster and Edinburgh will have to work hard for their points today - Johann van Graan's side had the meanest defence in the pool stages and Edinburgh weren't far behind, in third.


The battle for possession around the breakdown will be huge. O'Mahony and Tadhg Beirne will look to exert their influence but against the likes of Hamish Watson and John Barclay they will have a real battle on their hands.

Cockerill has assembled a quality pack with WP Nel, Stuart McInally, Ben Toolis and the game-changing Bill Mata bringing plenty of power and skills to the fray.

Munster will need to at least match them up front but if they do that they should have enough to reach a third successive semi-final.

Leinster should match that feat later today. It is an intriguing contest - considering the extra motivation the likes of Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore, John Cooney and Eric O'Sullivan will have against their home province. But to my eyes, even without Sexton, Leinster look a superior side in almost every facet of the game.

Ulster are already in bonus territory, and if, as expected, they come out on the wrong side of the result this evening, they should use this as a stepping stone.

Getting out of their Champions Cup pool and reaching the PRO14 play-offs, which they are also in line to do, would surely be considered a successful season in Belfast given the turmoil of the last few campaigns.

Against this Leinster side, there is only so much difference a leader of Best's quality can make.