FOR all the wrong reasons, Denis Leamy has every reason to remember his last visit to Stade Aime Giral.
Leamy made his Heineken Cup debut off the bench that day and the outcome, a 23-8 loss, didn’t make happy reading for a team coming off a second cup final appearance the previous season.
In a desperately tight group, where Perpignan and Gloucester provided dogged opposition alongside whipping boys Viadana, that cold January day might have signalled the end of Munster’s interest in the competition.
Were it not for the most amazing performance and 33-6 victory over Gloucester at Thomond Park a week later, Munster would indeed have been out of the competition.
Instead, the result of the subsequent ‘Miracle Match’ threw Munster a lifeline and they went on to win a quarter-final away to Leicester before losing in heartbreaking fashion (13-12) away to eventual champions Toulouse.
On Sunday, Leamy returns to an arena he described as easily the most intimidating he has experienced in a career that has blossomed since that day six years ago.
“I don’t know whether it was because it was my first run out but it sticks in my mind as the toughest place I have played in; the crowd were very intimidating, they were right on top of us on the pitch, disputed every decision the ref made, the bands were playing there all the time and the whole noise factor was just amazing.”
But Leamy has become used to playing in such difficult places, and recalls former coach Declan Kidney bringing the team to warm-up in front of the Gloucester crowd at the famed Shed in a subsequent season.
“These are things you have to face on the road, you have to get used to it and rise to the occasion, take what the fans can throw at you and then take what their team throws at you for the first 20 minutes, because assuredly they will throw everything at you in a bid to unsettle.”
His hopes are high that Munster will indeed put a rocky past behind them. “We just need to get it right in that opening passage of play and I would be confident we can stay with them as the game progresses; we have been disappointed that we started some of the big games this season slowly and then had to play catch-up. We did that successfully (play catch up) in some matches but not in others; they (Perpignan) won’t give us a chance of doing that so there is a huge onus on us to make sure they don’t get the start they will seek.
“I suppose this is the biggest game of the season for us and it certainly is one in which we must hit the ground running; we must make sure that we can drown out their crowd and ask questions of them (the team).
“I believe we have it in us. Looking back to last week, I honestly don’t believe we played that badly. I would say the opposite for the most part. We gave them a head start and really didn’t do ourselves any favours in terms of scores we conceded. I can’t imagine we will ever concede such silly scores again; we were caught cold and they got a head start without even having to work for it. Having said that, they’re not French champions for nothing and we will have to be very aware that they strike quickly and with precision, given half a chance,” he said.
After a season when form has been less than convincing on many fronts, questions are now being asked whether this great Munster rugby machine is on the slide. Leamy argues strongly that it’s not.
“I am convinced we’re not that far away from a huge performance; where we appear to be falling down is probably conceding the tries or penalties in the early stages of games but I’m sure that trend won’t continue.
“I said earlier in the season that our discipline wasn’t acceptable but we have got that right and the penalty counts against us have diminished. Then bizarrely we conceded those tries last week. It will come right, I’m convinced; we’re creating space and chances, but haven’t had the benefit of the bounce of the ball on a few occasions. It’s a matter of finishing off the opportunities we create for ourselves.
“I accept that now is the time for it to come right; this is a crucial game for us, but it won’t be settled by the crowd. We don’t have any real fears about what is generated from the terraces because we have been down that road before and know what to expect.
“Really, it will all come down to what we produce on the pitch and we’re very single minded in what we want to achieve. We know without question that this requires a huge performance.”
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