Heineken hangover robs Leinster and Munster of intensity needed for Pro 12 contests
Alan Quinlan believes players let what had happened the previous week interfere with preparations
Leone Nakarawa of Glasgow Warriors celebrates as his team beats Munster in Pro12 clash last week. photograph: dan sheridan/inpho
If there was ever any doubt about how important the mental side of sport is, the results of the Irish teams in the Rabo over the weekend put it to bed. Munster were incredibly poor, Leinster weren’t much better, whereas Ulster were really dominant against Connacht. It was obvious the defining factor in each game was attitude and mental preparation.
Going into the weekend, I would have expected Munster and Leinster to win their games, to grab what’s left in the season by the scruff of the neck. The flipside is that I felt Ulster might struggle against Connacht, given they were missing so many frontline guys and that they were bound to be hurting after going out of the Heineken in such controversial circumstances the week before. But to their credit they turned up and did their job.
You can’t say the same for the other two. I covered the Leinster game against the Ospreys for RTÉ and although they made seven changes from the Toulon game, I looked at the teamsheet beforehand and expected them to dominate. Maybe not on the scoreboard but in the physical exchanges.
I thought they would come out and look to make a statement after what had happened in France. This was their chance to say: “Look, this season is not over. We are still in here fighting, we are still Leinster, even if the Heineken Cup is gone for us now.”
And when they got their try just before half-time to go in 13-10 behind, my feeling was that if they wanted to do it, they would do it. That was the sort of game it was. Ospreys had played well in the first half but Leinster had them where they wanted them and if they came out with the right attitude, the game was theirs for the taking.
But what we saw in the second half was a team that lacked the energy and drive to win the match. Bar Cian Healy, who was phenomenal, you couldn’t pick out too many players who did themselves justice when it came to things like workrate, carries and turnovers. There were lots of errors, balls not sticking, the usual telltale signs of a team feeling a bit punch- drunk from the week before.
Munster were no better. Worse, if anything. At least Leinster had the excuse of having to pick themselves off the floor after a defeat. Munster had to be coming into their game against Glasgow on a high. They were coming back to the same stadium six days after a big victory, looking to keep the momentum going.
But just as Leinster looked like they had a hangover from losing, Munster looked a bit lost in the aftermath of having won. After Thomond Park had been absolutely rocking the previous Sunday, now it was eerie and quiet and the players came out with no intensity or energy and they paid the price.
These things can happen at this time of the year. It’s been a long season, you’ve been going at it week-in and week-out since August. The weather is turning and getting that bit warmer so you can see the end of the line coming up ahead. Your body will be sore – sorer than back in August anyway – but the real challenge is getting your head into the right place for each game, no matter how big or small the game is.
The comedown from a massive Heineken Cup game can be tough to handle. You’re going from an environment where the atmosphere has basically carried you along – where you can literally feel the passion of the occasion having a physical effect on your body – to an environment that is so much more quiet and run of the mill.
But that’s your job. You have to get yourself up for it. It’s not the crowd’s job to be up for every game; it’s yours. And if you haven’t worked hard enough mentally in the days beforehand, it will show.
Any player can fool themselves into thinking it will be okay. I’d be amazed if any of the Munster or Leinster players went into last weekend without at some stage realising the potential for it all to go wrong.
You know going into a league game the week after a Heineken Cup quarter-final that the challenge is going to be very different but it’s so easy to think that just by being aware of the problem, you’ve done enough to solve it.
You can fall into the trap of assuming things will be okay. Some Leinster players would have been banking on a reaction to the Toulon defeat. Some of the Munster players would have been quietly confident the win over Toulouse meant everything was going in the right direction. All it takes is for a small number of players to be a small bit off and suddenly you’re in trouble.
People stand back. They wait for things to happen. All of a sudden, they find that it’s the other team who are bringing the intensity. It’s the other team who are dominating physically, who are winning the competition at the breakdown and getting off the floor to make the next tackle.
These things are measured in half-seconds, so it might take a while to realise it. But by the time you do, the opposition have their tails up and you’re in trouble.
A prime example of it happened to Munster the week after we beat Gloucester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2008. In fact it was six years ago to the day last Saturday.
We’d beaten Gloucester 16-3 on their home patch and we were absolutely buzzing, really starting to feel like another Heineken Cup was ours for the taking. Then we went to the RDS the next week and got our asses handed to us by Leinster.
They blew us away with pure ferocity and intensity. It sounds stupid now but I remember being on the pitch and actually being surprised by how up for it they were. Or at least surprised at how much more up for it they were than us. They won 21-12 in a game where both sides only scored penalties, but they deserved to win by more.
We underperformed. Mentally and physically, we weren’t up for it. We could feel the sense of envy they had at us being in a Heineken Cup semi-final whereas they had come third in their pool, well behind Toulouse and Leicester. We didn’t match their pace or energy and we had no excuse for it.
I remember being so disappointed and frustrated in myself. I wasn’t at the level required that day. I went into the game feeling great after the previous weekend and when I thought about it afterwards, it was clear some part of me just expected things to keep going well off the back of the Gloucester win.
So when James Coughlan said after the Glasgow game that Munster had fallen in love with themselves after beating Toulouse, I could totally see where he was coming from. It doesn’t take very much for it to happen. You convince yourself you’re properly prepared and part of you thinks even if you’re a bit below par, someone else will step up. Sure didn’t you do your part last week?
There’s a very good and simple reason for thinking this – it happens. It’s part of what team sport is about. Some guys step up one week, others the following week and the best teams are the ones who have enough big performers week- in, week-out. On a certain level, everybody accepts you can’t be at full throttle in every game. You don’t go out to underperform. But you know perfect can’t be done every week.
Coaches know this too. That’s why they make changes, bring in fresh guys who should be hungry or feel they have a point to prove after missing out on the big game the week before.
People talk about freshening up the team – what they mean is freshening up mentally more than physically. It’s taking into account that everyone can’t be at full pelt in every game. Hopefully, with fresh faces involved, there will be enough to get you across the line.
But it doesn’t always happen. Doubts creep in. You lose a few early collisions and suddenly you’re thinking that this isn’t how this was supposed to go. You’re in a dogfight, which you expected. But not enough of your dogs are fighting.
And the opposition sense this. They’ve trained all week. They’ve been focusing on this game while you were recovering from your Heineken Cup match. They don’t care that you’re trying to pick yourself up or bring yourself back down to earth. They know there’s a potential for you to be distracted. And if they get a hint of it at all, they’ll be ready to exploit it.
Take the Ospreys. Friday night in Swansea, the league leaders coming to town. Not just the league leaders but Leinster, three times Heineken Cup winners. Ospreys haven’t had a great season, but they’re one place off the play-offs and they need a win to keep their season alive. Meanwhile, Leinster have played in France on Sunday, got home on Monday, trained Tuesday and Wednesday and got back on the plane for a Friday game.
If you were an Ospreys player or coach last week, you would have been going: “We have a brilliant chance here of getting a result. These guys have been travelling all week, they’ve gone out of the Heineken Cup, the last place they want to be on Friday is here. Let’s get in their faces and test them to see how up for it they are.”
Glasgow went out with the same mindset. They wanted to test Munster and see did they have an eye on the Heineken semi-final. They would have seen that Munster’s Rabo form has been slipping badly over the last month. They’ve already beaten Leinster, Ulster and Connacht this season. They went to Thomond Park and took the game to a Munster side that didn’t fancy it on the night.
Leinster and Munster came to the weekend from very different starting points but they both ended up the same way. The reason for it was nothing complicated – they let what had happened the previous week interfere with their preparation. It’s a great lesson to learn.