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18th Oct 2013

Zero Rucks Given: Jerry Flannery on the fine mental edge between Heineken Cup success and failure


Leinster overcame their loss to Munster to beat the Ospreys, but it was the exact opposite for Rob Penney’s men.

The importance of a team’s mindset going into a game was highlighted in stark contrast in the opening round of the Heineken Cup last weekend. The differing results from Leinster and Munster were excellent examples of how getting a squad of players into the right mental state is one of the biggest challenges in achieving success on the field.

Leinster went into their match away to the Ospreys off the back of a derby loss to Munster. The following week they entered into their Heineken Cup first round with a lengthy injury list – notable absentees being Richardt Strauss, Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Jennings and Lote Tuquiri to mention a few. Add that to the fact that Leinster had struggled at the breakdown against Munster, an area where the Ospreys are particularly strong, and the odds looked tipped in the Ospreys favour to get a first round home win.

However, the focus with which Leinster applied themselves over the 80-plus minutes, particularly at the breakdown, was an excellent example of a team playing with a greater hunger than their opponents, with a motivation not to go through the same stinging feeling of defeat they experienced the previous week. Leinster, despite losing Mike Ross early on and aided by an admirable display from his replacement Martin Moore, deservedly came away with a fantastic result.

Contrast this with how Munster fared in Edinburgh coming off the back of a great result the previous week.

The Leinster game was Munster’s  first real test of the season, they were playing a top quality side and they played well.  It was a big result, one that you would hope they would build on going into their game as favourites away to Edinburgh. Unfortunately there’s a fine line between taking a measure of satisfaction from a performance and allowing complacency to creep in.

Losing your opening game in the Heineken Cup is something I’m fairly familiar with. Both years that Munster won it, they lost their opener and it is definitely true that Munster thrive when they are in do-or-die situations. Thanks to that defeat to Edinburgh, that is exactly where Munster are.

There were, and probably still are, a few questions floating around about this Munster team. Last season they made a Heineken Cup semi-final despite the team being very much in a transitional phase. Some of the older heads were on the way out, new coach, new players, new plan. The hope is that this season some of the younger lads will mature as leaders and that the team finds a good balance in executing all aspects of their game plan.

Losing that first game sharpens you up on your game plan, what you have to do, the basics that make the difference and that is where Munster will be this week. Obviously they would rather have one win on the board, park it, and build on it but when you lose it is a real ‘oh fuck’ moment. Suddenly you have to pull your shit together and make no more mistakes.

The likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Dan Carter, players that can create something from nothing, are pretty rare. Most players rely on about 90 per cent grunt. Everyone can do that. So if you face a bunch of players, who may not be quite as talented as you, if they want it more, they will more than likely come out on top.

Munster’s reliance on being in do or die situations is not really healthy but it has always been there. All the top teams, in any sport, strive for consistency. Regardless of the competition, the result and performance is the same. Preparation needs to be consistent too. In the past, Heineken Cup weeks used to be so big for us. You knew it was a Heineken Cup week as there would be more sessions, more emphasis and then you could also tell when it was a Celtic League week as the mood was different.

That has been sorted now and preparation is exactly the same regardless. The players and coaches know full well that Heineken Cup rugby is a step up in intensity but the week’s preparation is consistent. Not every player will peak every week but when the squad is rotated well, and players who may have missed out the previous week are brought in, you can strive to maintain that on-field intensity.

The review session on Monday in Munster would have been difficult. It is even worse when it is a loss to a team that you know you are better than but you simply didn’t show it on the field. That comes down to mental focus and the review session, while it will sting and hurt, will make sure you remember that feeling and strive not to let it happen again.

I admired the honesty with which Rob Penney spoke in his criticism of the weekend’s performance against Edinburgh. When the team loses, it loses together, just as it wins together. The coach is in there, he is part of the group and if the mental focus isn’t right then the fault lies with both the coach and his players. When they get it right, like it was the previous week’s defeat of Leinster, the coach and the players deserve the credit.

It works both ways.