Leinster, Munster and Ulster face up to French & Italian opposition this weekend, and starting today with Leinster Lions, we have a look at the importance of those games.
One of the defining moments in Munster’s rise to prominence in European competition was the victory over Colomiers in 1999 and since then they have become one of the most feared sides in the competition.
On Saturday Leinster approach that same corner, and if they can turn it, they must know they can go all the way in this year’s competition.
There is no question but that they have the players. Looking back on how their internationals performed during the autumn internationals simply points up what a formidable squad Matt Williams has assembled.
Having them is one thing. Getting them to perform is another.
But again, in recent times, they have shown that Williams has implanted a resilience and mental toughness that wasn’t always there. Although they can play with a French type ilan – rip defences to shreds in the blink of an eye – they are no longer just fancy-dans. If needs must, these lions will get-down-and-dirty and engage in trench warfare with the best of them.
And that’s what they’ll be asked to do on Saturday in Clermont-Ferrand where Olivier Magne’s Vulcans will thunder into them right from the kick off.
Leinster needn’t let the shadow from last year’s defeat in Toulouse block their view. Circumstances in the run up to that game conspired to thwart them almost as much as the opposition’s perfect 10 performance.
And what could really work in their favour now is the presence of Brian O’Driscoll. Wow! Talk about stating the obvious.
But the thing is that the French will study video footage and make all sorts of plans to curb his wonderful talent and that will allow others like Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie and Gordon D’Arcy to make hay while the French autumnal sun shines.
Of course it’s not going to be easy but if Leinster survive the early exchanges, the French can lose interest as their English import Richard Cockerill, the former England and Leicester Tigers hooker now playing at the sharp end for Montferrand Vulcans, confirms.
“French teams blow hot and cold all the time – they can be a different team from one week to the next – but, on our day, we can beat anyone. We have to win in front of our 13,000 passionate fans on Saturday.”
“Our problem is that we had 12 new players and two new coaches at the start of the season. You can’t buy a team overnight, it takes time. Teams doing well in France at the moment like Toulouse, Agen, Biarritz have been together for three or four years.We have a lot of hard work to do in the Heineken Cup after slipping up at Bristol – where we could have won the match.” said Cockerill.
“And it doesn’t get much tougher than home and away to Leinster, who are one of the favourites to win the Heineken Cup. They had six forwards in the Irish team that played Argentina so that says a lot about their squad. I’ve played in Donnybrook with Leicester – we won once and lost once – and it’s not the most pleasant place to play on a wet and windy Friday night, especially with the French mentality of not fancying away games a lot of the time.”
Cockerill played in the 1997 Heineken Cup final against Brive, and his new coach Laurent Travers and Montferrand team-mate Sebastien Viarson were in the opposing side that day.
“The Heineken Cup final was the biggest thing in domestic rugby even then and it would be nice to get to there again with ASM but we’ve got a lot of work to do if that’s going to happen,” added Cockerill.
The pressure is all on Montferrand and coach Travers is under no illusions about the task his side faces
” After our defeat to Bristol, we are on an uphill climb. Leinster have more than half the Irish team in their side. They are a very strong team while we still have a fair number of absences to our squad.”
“”We are looking to produce a huge match on Saturday in front of our crowd at Marcel Michelin as they haven’t seen us there for quite a while. We must win at all costs but we must watch out for Leinster – we have a lot more to fear of them than they have of us.”
Leinster (v French opposition)
1996/1997. beat Pau, 25-23 in Donnybrook.
1997/1998. lost to Toulouse, 25-34 in Donnybrook; lost to Toulouse, 38-19 in Stade de Sept Deniers.
1998/1999. lost to Stade Francais, 17-28 in Donnybrook; lost to Stade Francais, 56-31 in Paris.
1999/2000. lost to Stade Francais, 39-6 in Paris; beat Stade Francais, 24-23 in Donnybrook.
2000/2001. beat Biarritz, 35-9 in Donnybrook; lost to Biarritz, 30-10 in Parc des Sports Aguilera.
2001/2002. beat Toulouse, 40-10 in Donnybrook; lost to Toulouse, 43-7 in France.