Thrown in at the deep end
The Heineken Cup's Pool stage could be a case of sink or swim for Ireland's big two says Brendan Fanning
Y ou will remember season 2007/'08 primarily for Munster winning the Heineken Cup for the second time in three seasons, and less so for the noise they had been making when the draw was made for that season's groups.
They had been lumped into Pool 5 with Clermont, Wasps and Llanelli. It was a gathering of beasts. All of them let it be known that there was something wrong with a competition where such power could be corralled together, while in neighbouring pens you had a prize bull surrounded by a few frolicking calves.
That Munster managed to get out of such a tight squeeze only added to the achievement in Cardiff the following May. But no more than Wasps, for whom Lawrence Dallaglio was always voluble on this issue, none of Munster or Clermont or Llanelli wanted to be in the same boat again.
So that's pretty much how we got the seeding system the next season. It's a labyrinthine process based on points earned through a team's history in the competition. And for the two campaigns since then there has been less noise about pools of death and more about the fear of groups not going down to the wire.
And what did we get for this campaign? Well, would you believe it, two of the tightest pools since the pioneers of this competition got together in the summer of 1995 in search of a vehicle to carry off this newly professional sport. And, fittingly for us, one involves Munster and the other Leinster.
Munster always start the season with one hand on the baggage rack looking for something or other, never happy unless they have some weight to mule about the place and then offload triumphantly. Their exit in San Sebastian last May gives them all the excess they need. Dismantled by Biarritz at the set scrum, there was a touch of the matador playing to the crowd every time referee Dave Pearson blew for another put-in and the Biarritz pack humiliated their opponents.
There is probably a shallow enough well of sympathy for Munster in this tournament because they have achieved so much. They are one of only four clubs to have lifted the trophy more than once, and only Toulouse are in their class for top-four finishes. So perhaps we didn't dwell on the painful manner of their exit in Spain and how long it would take to recover.
"That was really tough to deal with initially, and then to go in at the back end of the season to try and play games with the injuries we had was very difficult," says Tony McGahan. "Because you're so close to it after you've lost and after you're finished sometimes you're maybe nothing as clear as you should be. You become quite emotional with it until you actually stand back and away from it and deal with things a bit more objectively. It was at least two or three weeks after the last game before you could start thinking clearly."
McGahan wasn't the only one grieving. Eight months previously over at London Irish, Toby Booth had everything worked out for the trip to the RDS in round one. A big night for Bob Casey would turn into a huge one for the Exiles. Then, somehow, they managed to blow it against the Scarlets.
"When I was asked last season how I felt after we had missed out on qualification, I said I felt 'suicidal'," Booth says. "To go and win at the RDS, where nobody expected us to succeed, was special, but in the Heineken Cup you have to be a model of consistency -- that's the stark reality of this competition.
"In the Premiership, you can recover from a blip, but there is no chance to recover over six matches in the Heineken Cup. The biggest lesson we learned from last season was not from the games against Leinster, but the defeats against the Scarlets.
"We haven't brushed last season's disappointments under the carpet. Far from it. We have spoken about it as a group and went back over every game. The game may be moving on, but we know those situations will occur again and we can't afford to make the same mistakes again. I'm sure everyone will tell you they have got the toughest pool, but I think I am safe in saying that. During the pool draw all you could hear was groan, followed by groan, followed by groan as the top seeds from each pot came out in the same pool."
London Irish had less glaring issues to resolve for this season. Munster needed a scrum and with the arrival soon of Peter Borlase they will have enough competition at prop to make them far more competitive here. It had become embarrassing last season, with the elephant in the room knocking everything in sight.
"We're not stupid," says Mick O'Driscoll. "I'm not going to sit in front of you the week before a game and tell you the pack are playing like a bag of shit to be honest about it. That's the fact. We knew ourselves we were underperforming on occasions. We weren't performing as well as we should have done.
"There was games where we did well enough, there was games where things went well and there's games where things went very bad and it was always the same things that were affected. Our set-piece was one area that was poor last season. We knew it was going on and it was something that we tried to remedy. We think we have remedied it slightly this season. There's still plenty of work to do but we're getting there. We've brought people in. Their jobs are to get us back to where we should be and that's hopefully going to happen."
Leinster too have brought people in but it has been like a trickle compared to the flow in the other direction. People are wondering how they got off to such a slow start in the Magners? Maybe it's because the personality of the group has been transformed. Between management and players who have left, or will be leaving very soon, a whopping 15 have gone, or are going, out the door in Donnybrook since the Heineken Cup triumph in Edinburgh 17 months ago.
Some of these you won't notice so much, but they are fellas who are around day in, day out. They keep the blood flowing to all parts of the organisation. And when they leave there is a transfusion needed. It will take a while for the youth troop to make their presence felt.
While that is developing, assistant Jono Gibbes suddenly looks like a veteran of the piece having only come in two years ago. Does he feel an extra bit of heat given that the new coach, Joe Schmidt, is just that -- new to the lead role as well as new to the place?
"The expectation from within the group -- the staff, the Branch and all that -- that's always high and as an assistant coach you're aware if what you have to deliver to make the man's job easier," he says.
"I certainly haven't felt that that pressure has gone up an extraordinary amount -- it's always been high for anyone who works for Leinster, to deliver quality in their role. As far as Joe's first time being head coach kind of thing, I don't really read too much into that. He's massively experienced; he's got an astute brain and a lot of great detail. I think a lot of coaching is about relationships. And if you ask anyone he's got a good way with the players. Is he Cheiks? No, he's not. He's his own man. I don't feel in my role that I have to do anything extra special for him. I just have to make sure I'm delivering quality for him."
Gibbes is good value on the body language front when you run through Leinster's pool pals this season. Either his shoulders heave or his head shakes as he laughs about it being fair enough to beat the best to win the competition, but perhaps it's unreasonable to have to beat them before you even get out of the group.
A year ago Ulster were getting excited about the prospect of making it into the Amlin Challenge Cup when the Heineken quarters were slipping out of view. We're not so sure either Leinster or Munster would be so enamoured of the same slip road, but it's signposted all right.
If you're a fan of either then you need to familiarise yourself with these directions. Our premier provinces are so accustomed to knock-out rugby that their fans will be stunned if it doesn't happen -- at least not in the Heineken Cup. Indeed if Ulster can generate a continuous game, rather than one plagued by breakdown after breakdown, these million dollar babies are an outside bet to be the only ones flying the flag in the premier competition in springtime. Those odds will lengthen further however if they persist with Ruan Pienaar as their goal kicker -- fine player, but not a top quality kicker. Put Paddy Wallace at 10 and get on with it.
The vibe we're getting from France is that they are extremely keen to have as many as possible still on board at that point. The game there is going from strength to strength.
Early this season the average attendance at one weekend in the Top 14 was 13,000 and the equivalent in football's Ligue 1 was 16,000. In some cases it's taking over its rival which was always well out in front -- Montpellier's rugby crowd surpassed the football attendance when both were at home two weekends ago.
Everywhere you go either Sebastien Chabal or Jonny Wilkinson -- who just completed a sponsorship deal with a telecoms provider for €240k -- is looking out at you from billboards. People who previously had no connection with rugby are queuing to get in.
That's not quite the case in England where the drum that beats itself loudest -- ie the Premiership -- is being heard by fewer people this season. If you factored out Northampton, who have very healthy returns, then the average Premiership crowd two weekends ago was only 6,500. Punters are flocking to the flash double-headers in Wembley and Twickenham but the regular walk-up to local grounds has eased off.
It might be down to prices, or kick-off times, or the convenience of watching from home in an age where television fills your face with live action, but it will be interesting to see if the trend continues into the Heineken Cup where at least Munster's visit to the Madejski on Saturday will likely start with a 24,000 sell-out.
Either way, the clubs in England are in better condition to cope with any downturn. The notion over here that there are bucket-loads of cash to be collected in the Premiership are fanciful. The wage cap of £4.2m is strictly enforced, and its effect is a reduction in squad numbers over there. Trawl through any club's Euro squad and you'll find a few Academy boys filling out the last few places.
This will have obvious implications for their ability to sustain a successful campaign when the injuries stack up, but for Ireland's big two, the challenges posed by Saracens and London Irish will be massive. It doesn't appeal much to the coaches, but herding all this livestock into one confined space will make for a lot of confrontation. And fascinating it will be too.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.