Mastering the art of back-to-back battle
December doubles are the order of the day for teams with realistic designs on European glory
IT is the fight before Christmas. December is moving day in the race for Champions Cup quarter-final slots; as pleasant as it is for some, it can be excruciatingly painful for others.
Leicester departed Limerick with their tails between their legs and much talk of "arses being smacked"; meanwhile, over in Paris, Ronan O'Gara ruefully reflected that Glasgow's coup was a "fair kick in the balls" for his Racing side.
The Tigers and Racing 92 met in the semi-finals of this competition last season; the European landscape is ever shifting as both stand upon on the verge of elimination ahead of the reverse fixtures this weekend.
Cockerill confirmed that his side will need to "place a stake in the ground" this week; Munster need to ensure they put a stake through their hearts as three of the Irish sides aim for the doubles that might erase memories of last season's quarter-final wipeout.
Munster coach Rassie Erasmus has never been involved in a competition where teams play each other on successive weeks; it lightens the analysis load but heightens the intensity.
"For me certainly it's a new experience but not for the players and the rest of the management," he observes.
"I guess the one positive is there's only one game to do analysis on, it isn't like normally when you've three or four games of the opposition to analyse.
"So that makes it a little bit of a lighter workload for us but the reality is we've got to train this week and get on the plane and play at their ground and they're going to be really fired up.
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"So the positive of having less workload in terms of analysis is probably overshadowed by the toughness and the intensity we'll face."
The Tigers will be hurting after being hunted like game in Limerick; they did a double against Munster this time last year and, for pride alone if not qualification, will seek to roar defiantly eager vengeance.
"It's a different animal," confirms Munster captain Peter O'Mahony. "The back-to-backs are special and different in their own way.
"There's obviously a little bit less analysis goes in but because it's so close it makes the second week probably more difficult.
"Especially the fact we're going away from home now, and Leicester being the club they are and the quality they have, they will be hurting after that.
"They'll be waiting for us over there, and we have to have a big week. We have to recover well, and have a big training week, and probably have the biggest European week of this current team's history so far.
"That's the nature of the home and away - there's always, as a rule, a loser come out of it, and they'll be hurting next week. They'll be mad to get us over there and get stuck into us. It's a massive week for the club and this group of people."
Three years ago, Northampton were, like on Friday, spanked in England yet won the re-match in the Aviva.
"The lads are saying they're coming after us again," says Leinster prop Tadhg Furlong. "Three years ago is the benchmark and they're going to come out fighting. We'll regroup and be ready for it."
Assistant coach John Fogarty echoed those views yesterday.
"The last three seasons they have played December matches where they have lost their home games: to Racing, came back the following week and did a great job away. . . they did it to us and did it to Ulster. Ulster spanked them in Franklin's Gardens and Ulster lost the week later, same as we did."
Forewarned is forearmed even if the warning signs were hardly flashing in Limerick or Northampton.
Ulster, however, the third winners, are keenly aware of a luminous threat as they head to Clermont after just staving off a late rally; the cliché holds it is half-time and the French pool leaders may now have the momentum.
"We're a little bit disappointed as the two points (Clermont earned in defeat in Belfast) keeps them in control of the pool and we know we're going over to a cauldron this week," agrees Les Kiss.
"We must step up to that challenge and build on the some of the really good things that we produced."
Predominantly, quarter-final qualifiers will have emerged from December with a superior head-to-head record, whether via match points, try tallies or points aggregate.
Not doing so is devastating to one's qualification health.
In the last 17 seasons, Munster have completed eight doubles in December.
Even on the occasions they traded wins with their December opponents, Munster always emerged with a superior head-to-head record over the two games, albeit they and Saracens finished 28-28 with the same tries total two seasons ago.
Two successive years of back-to-back defeats destroyed their challenge, however, as it did Leinster against Toulon this time last season. Ulster won both games against Toulouse 12 months ago but their fate was sealed elsewhere by Saracens.
Six times Leinster have notched December doubles but on nine other occasions, they won only one fixture; Ulster were regularly undone during their decade-long knock-out drought of the noughties.
Connacht were the odd team out last weekend, being the only Irish loser; Pat Lam knows his side must beat Wasps in Galway and, after going down 4-0 in match points in Coventry on Sunday, at least match that.
"We have to re-group and there is no doubt next week is crucial," said Lam. "I said before the game, if we win one we have got a great chance of getting through; if we win two we are through.
"We get home, get in front of our crowd and dust ourselves down, get ourselves back. If we can get a win next week we are right back into it again."
These back-to-back games are usually an accurate enough barometer in terms of one's qualification prospects; the hot favourites can often hit the maximum points total but a minimum mark is nearly always a necessity.
Leicester - along with Stade Francais - are the only club to have bucked the trend in recent years.
Leicester reached the knock-outs without winning either of their crucial back-to-back matches in 2010-11, their total of three points the lowest of any club to have reached the knock-out stages.
It is most unusual to progress while standing still, though, as Irish clubs seek Christmas cheer to send them in good spirits towards the new year.
december double despair behind european woe
Last season, Ireland had no representative in the Champions Cup knock-out stages for the first time since 1997-98.
And, although Leinster stank out the place from beginning to end, it is normally in the middle - these December back-to-backs - where suspicions are confirmed as to the health of a club's challenge heading into the decisive final two January rounds.
Here are how the last two seasons of back-to-back clashes went for the Irish clubs (Connacht played in the Challenge Cup last season).
Munster v Leicester Tigers: lost 31-19 (h) and 17-6 (a)
Leinster v Toulon: lost 24-9 (a) and 20-16 (h)
Ulster v Toulouse: won 38-0 (h) and 25-23 (a)
Connacht v Newcastle: won 25-10 (h) and lost 29-5 (a)
Munster v Clermont Auvergne: lost 16-9 (h) and 26-19 (a)
Leinster v Harlequins: lost 24-18 (a) and won 14-13 (h)
Ulster v Scarlets: won 24-9 (h) and lost 22-13 (a)
Connacht v Bayonne: won 42-19 (h) and 29-27 (a)