Preparing for the Catalan cauldron

Leicester, Wasps and Munster.

It says much for Perpignan’s proud home record at Stade Aimé Giral that their only Heineken Cup home defeats have been to teams who have gone a long way in the competition.

Just three times has their hallowed French Catalan soil been polluted by foreign victory, and on each occasion no less than a semi-final place has been achieved by their conquerors.

Both the Tigers, in 2001/02, and Wasps, in 05/06, went on to lift European club rugby’s greatest prize later in the campaign, while Munster, in 09/10, reached the semi-finals.

That 37-14 defeat, four years ago next week, to Tony McGahan’s side was Perpignan’s only defeat in their last 23 home games in the Heineken Cup and Munster return there on Saturday aiming to repeat those heroics, solidify their position at the top of Pool 6 and take a big step towards securing qualification for the quarter-finals.

And though there have been plenty of changes to the Munster squad since that December day in 2009, the memories of those that remain are still vivid enough to pass on their experience to those who will be visiting for the first time this weekend.

Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Denis Hurley and Keith Earls are the only surviving starters from four seasons ago, while Damien Varley, Donnacha Ryan and the presently injured Niall Ronan came off the bench as Munster transformed a 10-9 interval lead, with second-half tries from Hurley, sub Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett into a comprehensive victory, a first win in three visits.

Backs coach Simon Mannix frequently made the trip with former club Racing Metro while wing Johne Murphy recalls having things thrown at him by the crowd during the warm-up on a visit with Leicester.

O’Connell, for one, knows it takes something special to win at Aimé Giral — a strength of character to accompany the skills, physicality and intensity normally needed to overpower a combative Perpignan side elsewhere, as Munster did at Thomond Park, 36-8, on Sunday.

“It was one of the best games I can remember in Munster in a very long time,” O’Connell said this week. “I remember Jean de Villiers had been dropped and we played some great rugby.

“Denis Leamy played one of the best games he ever did for Munster and, unfortunately, he found out the next morning he had a bad knee injury and was out for about nine months. I remember coming away from the game, feeling full of confidence about how we were going to go that year and I remember hearing about his injury and being gutted.

“But, they’re a team who we have a lot of respect for. I wasn’t involved when we played in (January 2003) and were really well beaten over there (23-8). The boys had really never experienced anything like the crowd, had never experienced anything like the way their team played.

“So, there’s a lot of fear among Munster players when they go to Perpignan, a lot of respect for them and that’s one of the reasons we were able to go there and do so well.”

Fear may seem an odd thing for a Test player to admit to but O’Connell believes it can drive you to better things.

“It’s one of those places that, if you go there and do the simple things well, if you don’t stay in the game, the game can go away from you and for us when we went there in 2009, I remember we did a lot of things very well; our lineout was good, our kick receipt very good and our breakdown was really good.

“We were able to hang in there and then Jean came off the bench and was able to score a great try and we pulled away.

“When we were there 11 years ago now, we just kept conceding momentum, they were able to build momentum and that’s what they do in Perpignan.

“It’s a great stadium and a really great place to play and you have got to give yourself a chance.”

Knowing what to expect at Aimé Giral and their vociferous 14,000-plus crowd is half the battle won and O’Connell and company have been valuable assets to head coach Rob Penney in preparing the others for what lies ahead.

“We are fortunate to have... a few guys who have been down there to experience that,” Penney said, “so we will be drawing on that.

“We have really got to set the seed that it is intimidating and a really difficult place to go but, yeah, I think guys are aware of that.

“I’m a big believer in what’s going on between the ears. If you go in with a mindset that predisposes you to being influenced and being less of a performer because you are playing away when you are playing away, then you will be less of a performer.

“So if we can control the things we desperately need to control and how we recover from last week and how we mentally apply our focus in the last 48 hours before kick-off, then we give ourselves a starters’ chance in a really hostile environment. If we don’t do that, well, it will be adifferent story.”

O’Connell will do his utmost to ensure the preparations are spot on and each Munster player is drilled to expect theunexpected.

“I think once you are prepared for it, that there may be issues with calls, you are generally okay,” the veteran second row said. “I think when you go there not expecting it, you can struggle. There are certain things you can do to keep it a little bit easier on yourself and we’ll be doing that this weekend.

“When I look back at games I’ve been involved with in France and won, we’ve had players all across the pitch having blinders. You can’t just of out there and do your job, you need to do your job really, really well and have a blinder of a game.

“I think that’s what the big days in France with Irish teams have been made of. You look even at Leinster at the weekend and Northampton, it was probably hard to pick a man of the match from any of their players right across their team, they were outstanding.

“That’s what you got to do when you go away from home if you want to get wins and that’s what Munster have done in the past.”

And will need to do again. Their qualification campaign depends on it.


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