A little experience goes a long way, so they say, and nowhere is that feeling more pertinent than at the business end of a Heineken Cup.
Yet for all Munster’s pedigree in European competition today’s semi-final against ASM Clermont Auvergne will be the province’s first trip to the last four in three years and such has been the turnover in playing personnel since that 18-7 defeat to Biarritz in San Sebastian that only four starters from that day could see action in Montpellier this afternoon.
Ronan O’Gara has figured in every one of Munster’s 10 semi-finals, dating back to that famous victory over Toulouse in Bordeaux in 2000, a game in which the now injured Donncha O’Callaghan and the soon to retire Marcus Horan both featured off the bench.
Paul O’Connell joined the party in 2002, when Munster scored their second and most recent semi-final victory on French soil in a 25-17 victory over Castres in Beziers, while O’Gara, James Coughlan, Keith Earls and Denis Hurley started the Biarritz semi four years ago at Estadio Anoeta, with Damian Varley, Niall Ronan and Scott Deasy on the bench, the only other survivors still on Munster’s books.
That leaves a large number of players about to experience the pressure of a Heineken Cup semi-final for the first time at Stade de la Mosson today, and as Mike Sherry put it after the Harlequins quarter-final victory three weekends ago: “it’s time for us young fellas to step up and deliver as well.”
O’Connell and O’Gara may now belong to the old brigade, the generation that gave the province its legendary status in Europe, and Sherry, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo part of its future, but falling somewhere in between are the likes of James Downey, the Dublin native with a point to prove in his first season back after coming of age as a rugby player in the black, green and gold of Northampton Saints.
The inside centre took a circuitous route to England, playing a season at his native Leinster, two in Connacht, just three games for Munster in 2006 and a campaign in Italy with Calvisano.
Downey, now 32, and Northampton found one another in 2007 when the Saints were trying to claw their way back into the English Premiership. Together they won the Division One title in 2007/08, the European Challenge Cup in 2008-09 and reached a Heineken Cup final in 2011, the Clontarf man, possibly the only Dubliner who left Cardiff miserable after Leinster’s irresistible second-half comeback left Northampton heartbroken.
Downey, then, has been there and done it and that’s a valuable commodity at this point in the season when others around him are maybe wondering what they are about to experience against Clermont. Having played in a Heineken Cup semi-final more recently than any of his team-mates, when Northampton beat Perpignan in Milton Keynes to reach that 2011 showpiece, his knowledge is as relevant as anybody’s in the Munster squad.
“I hope so, especially if it comes down to championship minutes, the last 10 or five minutes,” Downey said of his own experience being an asset. “As Leinster showed last year [in their semi-final win over Clermont in Bordeaux], they did it in the last play of the game. So hopefully if I can help any lads in any way by doing something I will, and if I lead by my actions that’s what I’ll try and do out there.”
Downey has, by his own admission, taken his time to warm to the task of leading by example since his return to Munster last summer, but his direct style in midfield and his strong defensive capabilities have been one of the hallmarks of the province’s recently found comfort in playing what they see in front of them. This was most notable in the quarter-final victory over Harlequins, where his physicality with and without the ball was prominent in subduing Conor O’Shea’s side.
“It’s great to get my hands on the ball and get involved in the game. I think I was a bit frustrated but I’m all right now and I’m happy and I can’t wait for this weekend. I think that [direct, physical] game suits me.
“Obviously I’ve got a lot more ball in the last while but, having held my hand up sometimes, I’ve let the games pass me by a bit. I need to get more involved and when I have got involved I think I get the team on the front foot and I’ll be looking to do that [today].”
Downey acknowledges the big hits he put in against Harlequins at the Stoop will once again be the minimum requirement against Clermont’s all-conquering attack, including his powerful opposite numbers in midfield.
“We’ll be looking to shut them down as early as we can. They’ve attacking threats all over the park and they’re not afraid to run it from their own 22 and stuff, so we’ve got to have our wits about us from the word go and we’ve got to try and stop them as early as we can.
“They’ve great balance. I think [Wesley] Fofana is the in-form midfielder this season, and he’s flying it at the moment so we’ve obviously picked him out as one to watch and I’ll be doing my best to keep him quiet... he’s got it all, hasn’t he?
“He’s the complete midfielder at the moment. You play rugby to play against the best and if he’s the best at the moment, so be it.
“I’m looking to do that this weekend against him. I’m excited about it.”