THE last few seasons have been challenging ones for Denis Leamy.
After announcing himself as a serious international force in the middle of the last decade, the Cashel man was a mainstay of the Irish back-row from 2004 through to Eddie O'Sullivan's last game in charge in March 2008.
He played in that summer's defeats to New Zealand and Australia under interim coach Michael Bradley but in the 24 Ireland internationals since Declan Kidney took over for the 2008 November Series, Leamy has featured in just 12, seven of those coming off the bench.
The reason has been a combination of persistent injury issues allied to Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip establishing themselves as first-choice selections at blindside and No 8.
It has been a frustrating period, with injury preventing Leamy from starting an Ireland win over Fiji in November 2009 and the tough victory over Samoa a year later. But a rejuvenated Leamy went into this season with his injury problems behind him and it has proved to be a redemptive experience.
Knowing that he would begin this campaign without his captain Paul O'Connell, coach Tony McGahan appointed Leamy as stand-in skipper and it's a decision that has been rewarded handsomely. Now 29, Leamy has played with authority and maturity as well as customary aggression.
With the Six Nations looming, the competition for a place in the Ireland back-row is particularly intense but big performances over the next two weekends would be a powerful statement to Kidney.
It starts against Toulon on Sunday and, even with the benefit of 46 Ireland caps and 126 Munster appearances, the must-win nature of this weekend's clash in the Stade Felix Mayol has the butterflies fluttering in Leamy's stomach.
"The last couple of days have been nervy but exciting," said Leamy. "It's a season-defining week and one that we really, really have to focus in on. We met up yesterday (Tuesday) in Mallow and just did a bit of a walk through to learn our moves and different phase plays we want to do. There was a 15-minute match and there was good intensity. Our intensity was up and you could see that."
Leamy agrees that Munster will have to produce their most complete performance of the season to avoid a first Heineken Cup pool exit since 1997 and he's focusing in on reversing a three-game losing run on the road -- against London Irish and the Ospreys in Pool 3 this season and last May's semi-final defeat to Biarritz in San Sebastien.
"This Toulon game really has been thrown down to us as our season. We need to get four points at least and we just have to bring our A game," he said.
The stakes are high, for Leamy and Munster, but he's in a good place to produce. Toulon may be about to bear the brunt of the butterfly effect.