The biggest concern for Wasps in the build-up to their second clash with Munster in the Heineken Champions Cup this weekend has been French referee Tual Trainini.
Not that the Premiership club’s coaching staff have got anything against Msr Trainini. It’s just that, by their own admission, they misread Romain Poite at the breakdown and tackle areas and suffered as a result in the 35-14 mauling by Munster in Coventry on December 12.
It didn’t help that they lost their captain Brad Shields to a red card after only 25 minutes. They will be a much different prospect in the return at Thomond Park tomorrow.
Let’s face, they’ll have to be if they want to progress to the Round of 16. They came into the final round of pool games sitting nervously in eighth place with those below them breathing down their neck.
There is the prospect of jumping up the ladder if they win in Limerick and having beaten Leicester Tigers and Toulouse in their last two outings they will certainly be travelling with renewed confidence and vigour.
But back to those concerns over Monsieur Trainini. It is not so much the fact it will be only his second Heineken Champions Cup game, but more that he will follow in Poite’s footsteps and ref in the French style to European diktats.
“We have worked really, really hard this week on our communication with the referee because the breakdown was interpreted so differently when we played Munster at home,” admitted Wasps defence coach Matt Everard.
“The big learning for us from the last time we played Munster, when they beat us well at home, which was extremely disappointing, was that we didn’t react well enough to the breakdown. They got a lot of return turning us over.
“The refereeing interpretation is slightly different in Europe. We had a French referee for that game and it was different to what we are used to in the Premiership.
“Premiership referees are extremely hot on the tackle area and on players rolling away, but his interpretation of that was different. We have worked really hard this week to ensure we fully understand what he’s looking for around the breakdown and what he expects from the tackler and rolling away.
“We need to make sure we prepare well and learn from the last time we played them.”
The official statistics for the first meeting bear out Everard’s concerns. Wasps were turned over 12 times on attack and 11 times in defence. Add in 14 penalties and you can see they got on the wrong side of Poite.
But that was then and this is now. Wasps’ injury-ravaged squad has already been bolstered by the return of Ryan Mills and Paolo Odogwu and England scrum-half Dan Robson is set to re-emerge fully fit this weekend.
On top of that, Tom West, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Elliott Stooke, and Vaea Fifita have all been back in full training.
“It has been nice having an injection of players back in training. They have brought loads of energy and enthusiasm and have given us a nice selection headache,” added Everard.
Wasps have lost their last seven Champions Cup games on Irish soil, games that have seen them play every Irish province other than Munster. Their last visit to Thomond Park came in 2008, when they were beaten 19-8.
It has meant Everard and his fellow coaches have had to educate their players about what to expect. It is one thing having to put up with the Harlequins supporters cheering on their team, or the Exeter Chiefs fans doing the ‘Tomahawk Chop’; once you get the ‘Fields of Athenry’ ringing in your ears it can be mesmerising.
“You have to prepare the lads for where they are going and what they are going into. A lot of our lads won’t have played there before and if you leave it to kick-off to let them know what they are going into it’s too late,” said Everard.
“We’ve been letting them know about the Munster fan base, how the city revolves around the rugby team and the passion everyone has for the game, and especially for European rugby. We’ve made them aware of all that and the challenge ahead of them. But you don’t want to make it all about Munster. It’s important that we make it about us and what we’ve done in the last couple of weeks.
“We need to use those games as a springboard. Our speed in attack and defence has been like the Wasps of old in recent weeks and winning is absolutely everything. We will have to be as dogged, gritty, and resilient in Munster as we have been in the last couple of games against Leicester and Toulouse.
“The players always go out and give it their all, but we managed the last few games better and brought Test match effort. We go to Limerick knowing we have to win.”
And there is no doubt they can rise to the occasion. Just look down the years at some of the classic encounters between the two teams.
In many ways the two sides are in the same bracket, fallen giants of old in European terms who are desperate to get back to the top. Wasps won in 2004 and 2007, while Munster triumphed in 2006 and 2008.
They are locked on two titles each, yet inextricably linked by one of the greatest games of all time in the tournament. The semi-final at Lansdowne Road in 2004 remains a classic to this day.
“To play away in a Heineken Cup semi-final is a tough ask, to go to Ireland to play in their national stadium against a provincial side like Munster was incredible,” recalled the former Wasps skipper Lawrence Dallaglio recently.
“We had about 200 travelling fans and I think they had about “50,000, all wearing red shirts. I’ve never in my life to this day walked out into a stadium where the atmosphere has been as red-hot as that day.
“It seemed as though it was us against the whole of Munster and we were significantly pumped up. From minute one, both teams went at it.
“Semi-finals aren’t supposed to be games that people remember, they can be quite scrappy and nervy given the prize at stake. But both teams had a really positive attitude to go out and play.
“With 10 minutes to go we were staring down the barrel, trailing by about 12 points, but we found it within ourselves to get level. Then Trevor Leota got the crucial try to win it at the end.
“I still remember the graciousness of the Munster fans. They must have been heartbroken after the game, another fall at the penultimate hurdle, yet they were so gracious.
“It was one of those games that you had to applaud both sides.”
The stakes will be high once again tomorrow, with home quarter-finals and Round of 16 qualifications on the line. Can it be as good as 2004?
Thomond Park will certainly be a proving ground for young England hopeful Alfie Barbeary, the much fancied Odogwu and a few others who have yet to immerse themselves in the rugby culture of Munster.