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What happens to achievers once they have achieved? Fans at Welford Road, Leicester, may no longer be offered the steamrollering certainties of their glorious early 21st-century years, but they are at least seeing at first-hand how others teams are answering that psychological conundrum.
First-time English champions Sale opened their title defence at Welford Road last month. On Sunday Heineken European Cup holders Munster start their pursuit of a repeat, also at Leicester.
Unrequited passion drove the Irish province to eight consecutive knockout-stage appearances, five semi-finals and three finals before a final triumph whose raw emotion recalled South Africa’s victory in the 1995 World Cup. Now the Heineken’s defining romantic narrative enters a second phase, the quest giving way to a defence of what has been achieved.
Coach Declan Kidney, a cool head amid the emotional mayhem of their triumphs and disappointments, sees no way of predicting the impact of this changed role, but notes: “If we’d lost again in May, you’d be asking, and we’d be wondering, if we could pick ourselves up and try to do it all over again.”
Change is inevitable in both sport and life, he points out, but one constant remains. “We’ll go on doing what we’ve done every year – we’ll try to enjoy ourselves and play to our strengths and the best of our ability.”
If Munster want to learn about successful title defences, they are in the right place. Leicester are the only team in the Heineken’s 11-season history to have retained the Cup, their second victory coming over Munster in 2002. There will, though, be no thoughts of revenge – that was achieved comprehensively within a few months when the Irishmen ended Tigers’ hopes of a hat-trick with a 20-7 quarter-final win at Welford Road.
Any sense of déjà-vû relates more to last season when Munster were awarded a similarly fearsome Heineken start, and went down 27-13 at Sale. That campaign had the happiest possible ending, but Kidney could do without a repetition. “If you lose first-up, every match after that is a must-win and there’s no margin for error. It isn’t the easiest way of doing things.”
Munster’s triumph inevitably reverberated elsewhere in Ireland. Ulster skipper Simon Best was more pleased for Irish squad-mates than disappointed at losing the distinction of being the only Irish winners – back in 1999 – explaining that bragging rights had palled with Munster’s succession of near-misses.
As Celtic League (now renamed the Magners League) champions and current leaders, they cherish ambitions of their own and are not intimidated by today’s visit from perennial contenders Toulouse.
“We beat them in 1999,” Best points out, while conceding that poor away form has been a consistent block on Ulster’s Heineken hopes. “We made that breakthrough in the Celtic League last year, and now we’ve got to do it in Europe.”
Leinster, too, should be spurred by seeing the second of their historic rivals taking the trophy. Any team capable of the demolition of Toulouse away in last year’s quarter-final is a contender, while their pool-stage record of 25 wins in the last five years is the competition’s best. It is beyond that they have stumbled, but given the desperate disappointment of two semi-finals lost at Lansdowne Road, they may not mind that their home ground will be under reconstruction by next spring.
Wales’s trio look improved, but face brutally difficult pools while Edinburgh will carry Scottish hopes and Treviso Italy’s. Logic, and that draw, suggest that the Anglo-Irish-French troika will dominate the later stages.
Sale look England’s best but have the toughest pool, while Gloucester are perhaps a year away, and Leicester and Wasps not quite the forces of their winning years.
Across the Channel, Toulouse may be in marginal decline. Biarritz get closer to the Heineken every year and given their French championship record can hardly be branded chokers, but seem afflicted by failures of nerve in European competition.
Stade Français by contrast have rocketed out of the traps, lead the French championship by 11 points and have demonstrable strength in depth. They have to get past Sale and Ospreys – England’s best and Wales’s most talented – at the pool stage.
Do that and it may be time for their Heineken quest to reach the same happy conclusion as Munster’s.
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