Tyrone Howe: European focus can’t come at expense of domestic slip-up
This weekend the difficulty will be not to have too much of a glance on the following week and the start of the Heineken Cup. The Rabodirect is one thing, but there is still something extra special about European knock-out rugby.
At times over the last few seasons, the Celtic, Magners or Rabodirect, whatever name the domestic league has taken, somehow has felt like a phoney war compared to the Heineken Cup.
Even last season there can be no doubt that Ulster’s league fortunes were sacrificed at the temple of Heineken. While the profile and therefore sense of achievement is growing within the Rabodirect, your pedigree is ultimately judged against the best of Europe.
While Ulster get better and better and cannot wait for Europe to start, their biggest risk is an anticlimactic performance against the perennial banana skin that Connacht poses. The men from the West are always tough opponents and their confidence will be buoyed by last week’s annihilation of Leinster at the Sportsground.
The finest team in Ireland and Europe has the strangest habit of being incredibly underpar prior to the start of the Heineken Cup only to get it so very right as the tournament progresses.
Forget the fact that Leinster are currently sixth in the RaboDirect, the key trigger for their success in the last few seasons has been their upcoming fixture against Munster. This weekend it is again in the Aviva Stadium, probably close to a sell-out crowd, and it provides an atmosphere and intensity exactly like European competition — it is classic preparation for the real deal. Leinster currently holds the bragging rights and with home advantage I cannot see them losing.
However, were Munster to triumph it would heighten interest in whether it might upset Leinster’s usual path to Heineken glory.
The Aviva this Saturday will not be for the faint-hearted.