With Halloween just around the corner, you would expect that a few ghosts and ghouls will be dusting themselves down for another annual haunting season. Some ghosts, however, were exorcised a few weeks early and can now rest in peace.
Leinster were at the forefront banishing any lingering doubts about their ability to win at Murrayfield in the Heineken Cup. Having been drawn against Edinburgh for the third time in successive years and having had their European dreams dashed twice before at the same ground, the build up was as much mental as physical.
However, so poor was Edinburgh’s performance, with numerous turnovers and missed tackles, that there really was no risk that the Leinster players would once again have to spend this week on the sports psychologist’s couch.
The graveyard was sacked in a twenty minute purple patch in which the Dubliners not only put the finishing touches to a vital away win, but also secured an invaluable bonus point in the process.
Pool Two is a funny one – going into last weekend, Castres, Wasps and Edinburgh had all only won one match, leaving Leinster, with two victories, amazingly still the form side, even though their previous fortnight had seen defeats against Munster and Connacht.
The other team to get the monkey off their back was, of course, Stade Francais, but at least Ulster, to their credit, made them work for their points. The victory that we were all hoping for didn’t transpire and again the lack of ability to turn pressure and territory into points came back to haunt the men in white. Life doesn’t get any easier this week, as Harlequins will look to build on their superb fightback at Stradey.
It is crucial to get off to a good start in this competition and, with respective away victories, both Stade and Harlequins have put themselves in the driving seat for quarterfinal qualification.
It is quite possible that Pool Four may even provide two teams for the knockout stages. While Ulster’s chances seem to have disappeared into the mist for another season, the team will play a crucial role in whether Harlequins can progress, as either the Stoop this Saturday or Ravenhill in Round Five could scupper the Londoners’ chances.
Leading on from this, the most striking aspect of the first weekend of the 2007/8 Heineken Cup was, for me, the number of victories achieved away from home.
Ten of the dozen fixtures were evenly split – five wins for the home team and five for the away side, and when you consider that in the other two fixtures Montauban and Bath should have won at Thomond Park and Stade Toulousain respectively, this article should really be a celebration of the away team.
Historically, as Ulster has found, it has been incredibly difficult to get an away win in the Heineken Cup, but times are definitely changing. Maybe it is simply a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”.
As time goes on and teams play each other more frequently and visit specific grounds more often, the fear factor that might formerly have existed no longer makes quite the same impact.
While there will always be a feeling of “haves” and “have-nots” in European rugby, the reality is that the standard of athlete has improved across the board since the competition’s inception and, therefore, the relative gap between individuals and teams must have converged. Couple these two factors together and all of a sudden, maybe winning away from home isn’t such a big deal after all.
But I can assure you that it feels much easier writing about it than actually doing it on the pitch. I was part of a squad which created this demon for the current Ulster team, having never achieved an away victory in England or France in the Heineken Cup. The best result was a last minute draw against Toulouse – a magnificent effort, but still not a win.
Playing away from home poses more mental questions than physical – when the head is right, the body behaves accordingly. It comes down to preparation and self-belief. I have no doubt that Ulster’s preparation this Saturday afternoon will be spot on, so it will come down to belief in the individual and collective.
Confidence, while in no way fully restored, should be in the process of repairing itself, with a combative performance against one of the best sides in Europe. Harlequins are a team who score tries for fun, so defence has to be spot on – non-negotiable.
But Llanelli showed that gaps can be exposed and Ulster’s greatest challenge is that every time they visit the opposition “22”, points have to hit the scoreboard.
While my generation may not have set much of a precedent, there were enough examples last weekend to prove that hope can be replaced by genuine expectation. Only then can Ulster exorcise the demons of the past.