Tyrone Howe: Giant Casey deserves an Ireland call
The past weekend in the Heineken Cup provided yet another reminder of how important the elements of the collective will and purpose of a team are to a quality performance.
You can have all the skills in the world, but this concept of the " collective" provides the glue that gels everything else together and ultimately can, at times, be the deciding factor in overcoming other groups of talented individuals.
In the respective victories of London Irish and Saracens we saw two groups of relatively unglamorous and unfancied players combine their skill, tactics and a raw collective intensity to resist the efforts of their opponents.
I expected the Ospreys to find it a lot more difficult to exploit the same gaps on the narrow pitch of Vicarage Road but this should not take away from the performance of the Saracens who hassled and harried their Welsh opponents into an abundance of uncharacteristic mistakes.
But why should we really be that surprised? The Heineken Cup, throughout its history, has thrown up complete reversals of fortune even more dramatic than this one. Having played in the 33-0 victory over Leicester Tigers in the 2003/04 season, six days later I was also on the end of the biggest hiding I can remember, a good old-fashioned hammering at Welford Road 49 points to seven. Leicester threw the kitchen sink at Ulster that day, and so did Saracens in their equivalent of "Super Sunday".
London Irish did all the basics well - a solid scrum, imperious in the line-out, defensively superb and crucially, they took their chances with that wily old fox Mike Catt, not letting me down after I talked him up last week, and providing the inspiration with his successful crossfield kick.
It's time to talk about big Bob Casey. He is not just the captain but also the spiritual heart and soul of a team made out of mostly "Plastic Paddys". Over the last few years I have heard London Irish supporters talk about him in almost reverential tones, such is his popularity and their respect for him. He is quite literally a giant, standing at 6ft8ins and weighing close to 20 stone. He has been performing for London Irish consistently over the last few years and with only five caps to his name, it beggars belief that he hasn't been reintroduced to the Ireland squad since his last involvement seven years ago.
With an Irish tour to Australia and New Zealand in the summer, even if it costs the IRFU a fortune in terms of excess baggage charges, Bob has to be on that plane. And you never know, with Ireland needing a fresh start after the O'Sullivan era, he could be an outside bet for the captaincy. In short, it's time to bring the Exile home.
While Saracens and London Irish can rightly celebrate their historic achievements, their respective opponents in the semi-finals, namely Munster and Toulouse have a history in this competition that commands the utmost respect and they looked ominous in victory. For Toulouse it was a canter on their home turf, but Munster gave a masterful performance with their typical pressure game supported by the qualities of daring and skill.
There are a few boys in that Munster side who like a flutter and I wonder if word filtered through to the changing room about the Aintree winner. The words Comply or Die might have provided the most fitting inspiration, as it is exactly that maxim that they bring to a game.
Munster define collective will and they simply refuse to submit.
It is these same Munster qualities that Ulster must look to in preparation for their all-important match against Connacht this Friday evening. The Galway men may be propping up the bottom of the Magners League but they also have a collective spirit, which is all the more admirable in that the players experience defeat on a regular basis. Their performance 10 days ago against Munster at the Sportsground gave another demonstration of it - they throw everything at you and never give up, they just lack the out and out quality of players. It seems simple but the key message for Ulster is you have to go and beat them, because they will gift you very little.
The foundation for the stellar performances at the weekend was based on set-piece efficiency and destructive defence. Matt Williams has had two weeks to work on the defensive system with the Ulster squad and I expect there to be a much greater collective understanding - but the destructive will in making those tackles must be there for all to see. Dominate the first point of contact and it buys you that extra second to get the defence organised so that the next contact will be even more on your terms, and so it goes on.
Friday night is about doing the basics well and an intense will to win. Defence underpins everything and generates confidence, thereby contributing to a more incisive attacking game.
It's only natural for Ulster supporters to gaze up in envy at the top of the Magners League where Leinster sit pretty, and to watch from a distance the entertainment that Munster provide in the Heineken Cup. For now, though, we're in a dogfight of our own. The right tactics and execution are of course vital, but last weekend proved a real lesson once again that it's not always about the size of the dog in the fight, it's about the size of the fight in the dog.