Prendergast gives Irish teams the inside track
Grenoble skills coach insists both Munster and Connacht can be more than a match for French Top 14 giants
THE Top 14 is regularly described as the toughest competition in world rugby and right now it is the most competitive to boot.
Just 10 points separate league leaders Clermont and 10th-placed Bordeaux at the halfway point of the campaign, with Munster's upcoming Heineken Cup opponents Perpignan sitting in ninth and Johnny Sexton's Racing Metro one point and one place above them in eighth.
Looking down on the big names now are Grenoble, basking in the satisfaction of slaying another giant – inspired by 20 points from Dubliner James Hart. Toulouse were the latest big gun downed by the Alpine club last weekend and the timing couldn't have been worse for Connacht, who take on Europe's most successful team this weekend.
While Racing's high-profile pair of current and former Irish out-halves have hogged the headlines this year, it is Grenoble's collection of Irish coaches and players who have managed the better start to the season and have the scalps of Sexton's Parisians, Toulon and Toulouse on their walls.
Mike Prendergast joined Bernard Jackman at the club last summer and is now settled into his role as skills coach with the Top 14 giant killers.
A year with Bourgoin as a player conditioned him to life in France, but now he is fully adjusting to coaching in rugby's toughest competition. Despite their relatively small budget and lack of big names, Grenoble have come out of their 13 games smack bang in the middle of the pack.
Ireland's provinces get to take on the might of the French clubs twice or three times a season, but Prendergast, Jackman and the rest of the coaching ticket at the club must do it week in, week out.
It doesn't come off every time, but there are lessons to be learned from their approach. This weekend it is Munster and Connacht's turn to face up to French giants, with back-to-back clashes with Perpignan and Toulouse lined up on Sunday.
For all of their good days, Grenoble's trip to the Stade Aime Giral to face Perpignan was not one of their better outings. Perpignan brought both barrels and ran out 36-13 when they met in September. The Catalans come into Sunday's Thomond Park clash on the back of three successive league defeats in November, although their performance in losing to Clermont Auvergne last Friday will give them some room for optimism.
There is a sense that, having lost ground to last weekend's opponents, Toulon, Toulouse and Castres in recent seasons, Perpignan are beginning to rebound as a power. They have international-standard players in most positions and when they click, like they did when Prendergast got a close-up view earlier this season, they can be hard to stop.
But like so many French teams of the past, consistency remains their Achilles heel and although they have already dropped points on the road in Europe and have a nine-day turnaround before taking on Munster this weekend, the former scrum-half believes they may still sacrifice this one and target maximum points back on home soil.
"They are a good side, but their biggest problem this year is their consistency," Prendergast said. "They have won once on the road and that was against Biarritz, the bottom team. They've put strings of games together, two or three but consistency has been a big problem.
"They have a lot of quality there, with Lifeimi Mafi being a former Munster player he'll give them the inside track and I think Munster will win at home, but with Perpignan leading the pool and only two games gone with them well in it, they may not send a full-strength team this week, but they'll really target their home game.
"They got a bonus-point win at home against Edinburgh and picked up a losing bonus point in a game they should have won against Gloucester away.
"To be fair to Perpignan, they are one of the French teams who have a love affair with the Heineken Cup, you go through their squad and they have quality. If I was a betting man, I'd have my money on a Munster win but the real challenge will lie away."
The French side have a massive pack with a monstrous front-row, but Prendergast believes that a Paul O'Connell-led home eight can match them.
"If Munster can set the platform and go at them, they can be rattled," he said. "They like to keep the ball alive an awful lot, they like their offloading game and if the forwards at set-piece can get on top, Munster may not be playing to the level they want to be but they are still winning games and that's a habit.
"The next two games will mould the season, Munster are aware of that. They need to slow it down and deny them quick ball. Paul is back to full fitness and playing unbelievable rugby."
As for Connacht and their daunting back-to-back meetings with Toulouse, Prendergast has this advice for Pat Lam and his coaching staff after his side's 25-18 win last week: "We knew we had to get in their faces and win the collisions. If they get that offloading game going and make a line break they're ruthless.
"But you can have all the stars in the world but it starts up front and defensively if you frustrate them like we did... they came back into the game and gave us a wake-up call, but we got our line-speed right. The attitude has to be right and you can't allow them get their offloading game going."