With the Leinster Lions due to kick-off their Heineken Cup campaign on Friday, David Mervyn caught up with their team manager, Ken Ging, who set out the Leinster stall.
A winter’s Sunday last year. The Clock Tower city idled under a sunless Midlands sky. Down Waterloo Way, pockets of Leinster blue raised their voices to acclaim the end of their European sojourn. 29-18 against the best mustard in England. Beaten, but defiant. Possibly intoxicated. Beaten well. Ken Ging is close by the team bus. Perhaps contemplating hanging a left at the end of the road, to drop the broken hearts off at the Royal Infirmary. The royal blue ribbons on the Celtic League trophy won before Christmas time began to unravel before Ken Ging’s eyes. The Leinster team manager had bowed his head on the touchline, as he heard the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle at Stade Toulousain a week earlier. Now he was left to contemplate perhaps a missed opportunity and a summer nervously waiting for his foot soldiers to return unharmed from international fronts.
Roll on nine months and what some may class as the first official winter’s day has come to Dublin. It’s the Tuesday before the artist formerly known as The Donnybrook Experience’ plots course for a Friday evening launch. The Heineken Cup is drifting westwards on a sheath of greasy rain. A grey-suited Ging sits beguiled under the reaches of the Wesley stand. He loves the freshness of it. The sponsor’s verdant green posters dotted about the place. He won’t admit it. Peering upwards at the sky, he can see shades of Welford Road and his stricken players. He won’t admit it.
You know it wasn’t the performance, more the result. Anyway, there were bigger disappointments in last year’s competition for us. The whole frozen pitch’ debacle with Newcastle. The inconvenience to us all was shocking. Having to come back from England on late Sunday, go to work on the Monday morning and then be told that the game is actually going ahead and it’s the next day. It has very unpleasant memories for us all and that’s why I’m excited about this year’s competition. I’m very hopeful that the ERC will have learnt from their mistakes and we, as a squad, will also learn from our mistakes and take our home form on the road with us.”
Leinster have been drawn in a head scratcher of a pool. The Bristol Shoguns are a case in point. Having lost their first four Zurich Premiership games, their season was turned on its head last week with an unlikely win on the Leicester Tigers, having been down to fourteen men for upwards of 72 minutes. Coach Peter Thorburn’s charges have regularly performed on the bridesmaids’ circuit – the Parker Pen Shield – reaching the semi-finals in 2000.
“We have to appreciate that Bristol are particularly strong, as are Swansea, even if they are both struggling in their respective leagues. Each team is given the utmost respect by Matt the team and myself. There are no easy games in the Heineken Cup. Our home form will hopefully hold up. We had a blip against Connacht but the Donnybrook Experience’ can aid us to victory. I expect a home win on Friday.”
Ging is talking the talk. “We have the players, we have the coaches, we have the backroom staff. And we simply have to make the difference this year. Quarter-finals aren’t good enough.”
A nudge towards any obvious differences and we are proffered Willie Anderson.
“He has done excellent work since he has come in. It’s great to have a person of his strength within the set-up. He has brought a wealth of experience and guile to the fold, and his wisdom and wit are also invaluable assets. Especially away from home.”
The fixture, which could decide how far Matt Williams’ side goes this year, is the daunting away game with Montferrand. Magne, Merceron, Marsh, Marlu. Marcel Michelin, how are ya? Mmmm, the smell of cigarette butts. Apparently there is a tad over-feeding and a hell of a lot of under-performing going on dans la maison d’Olivier. They are dark horses, you simply never know on which day they will perform to ability. Having never won on French soil, Ging is well aware of the importance of rugby’s equivalent of a blind date – December the 7th, Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin.
“There has been much talk of how the French will perform this year and we have been discussing this at team meetings. The Hoodoo’, as it has become known, must be broken. You have to respect Montferrand for their sheer ability, but we aren’t playing down our own chances of progression.”
The French side are slight favourites to top Pool 4.
Ging is just happy to be at home on match day one. “When you look at the draw some of the other provinces got. I mean, I wouldn’t like to be in Munster’s position away to Gloucester. That’s a really difficult game for them and a hostile atmosphere to boot.”
The Leinster squad went through their paces at a 6pm session on Tuesday evening and their last full training session is today at 5pm. A big blow for Friday’s first pool game is the injury to Eric Miller. The Terenure forward sustained an injury in last Friday’s Celtic League win over Newport. “He’s a definite non-starter. Everyone else is fine, bar Nathan (Spooner). His return will be important for us in December. But the atmosphere will be electric in the ground on Friday and as I’ve said, I expect a win. Nothing else will do.”
The rain has stopped. Leinster rugby has contested one quarter-final in six years of Heineken Cups. Last year, Matt Williams endeavoured to secure two pieces of silverware for his travails. In one way, this can be looked upon as a make or break season. Records must tumble. In contrast, a European jungle could see the Lions ripe for a bout of second season syndrome? I think, yes. I ask Ken Ging for the right answer.
“Ah sure, we have to try and win it all.”
I lumber my footsteps towards the gravelly exit. Beaten, but defiant.
The Donnybrook Experience.