Munster’s task in the big Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Northampton at Thomond Park today goes beyond simply their own ambitions in this year’s tournament.
The on-going strength and success of Irish international rugby is comprehensively linked to the activities of Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup. With all due respect to the Magners League, the Heineken is the tournament which has under-pinned Ireland’s golden generation, and the domestic successes of recent years, such as last season’s Grand Slam.
Without that base, I doubt that Ireland would have made the progress they have on the international stage. It has given the national team a fund of confidence, of competing with the best players of countries like France, Wales, and England and realising that they are perfectly capable of beating all of them.
In the amateur years when domestic club rugby was the only dish on the table, Ireland’s top players only really saw the best French rugby players when they played them once a year, either in Dublin or Paris in the old Five Nations Championship. You need to play the top teams and face the best players regularly to improve, that much is axiomatic.
But with the 2011 Rugby World Cup now creeping closer, it remains essential that Ireland continue to be able to draw from the well of sustained success and self belief that Munster, especially, and Leinster, more so in recent years, have established. The sooner Ulster can join this illustrious duo by winning another Heineken Cup and establishing themselves as a regular threat even to the best teams around Europe, the better.
If Munster and Leinster fail in this year’s Heineken, then players’ confidence will inevitably take a knock. Just ask the Munster players who got hammered by Leinster in last season’s Heineken Cup, if they retained every ounce of self belief and confidence in themselves after that defeat. Inevitably, little doubts begin to creep into players’ minds; they start to wonder if they can still crack it against the absolute best at the highest level.
When Ireland leave for the World Cup midway through next year, Declan Kidney won’t be able to afford to have any players in his squad with such doubts. After the shocking failure to perform in 2007 in France, Ireland’s preparation and performances this time must be spot on.
But if Munster and Leinster have started to slip by then, seen their former dominance of this tournament ebbing away like the spring tide, then doubts must surround Ireland’s World Cup hopes. For the two are inextricably linked.
For the senior players, it is especially important. Age and injuries eventually combine to bring down all men, whatever their once mighty prowess, and players like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll — fine players as they have been — are no different in that respect to anyone else.
But it is through achieving at the next level down, with either province or club, that the younger international players learn their craft, and hone their attitudes and philosophies.
Thus, more Heineken success this spring is essential for one or both of the Irish sides.