Leinster will need to draw on all their experience

 

FROM THE BLINDSIDE:SEMI-FINALS can be odd games to get your head around, whether you’re playing in them or just looking in from the outside. In the years when Munster didn’t make the Heineken Cup semi-final, I could always take or leave watching them. If I was in the house when they were on, I’d probably half-watch them but I wouldn’t be sitting down with my mug of tea in anticipation.

The hurt of being out of the competition doesn’t go away until the season is over and by semi-final time, it’s still a bit raw. I wouldn’t bet on there being a lot of the Munster guys in front of their TVs this weekend.

For a player, a Heineken Cup semi-final is the most pressurised part of your season so far. With Munster, we always felt we would come through a quarter-final. We never took them for granted but we were always confident going into them, no matter who the opposition were. Just that experience of having been there before and everybody knowing their job led to a feeling within the squad that we would take that first step towards the final.

Semi-finals are different. Everything is cranked up a notch, the pressure comes on in a big way. That’s because it’s different pressure to anything that has gone before. In pool games and in quarter-finals, you’re going out to win, to take the next step, to get the job done. But no matter how long you’ve played or what you’ve won, part of you is still going out in a semi-final trying not to lose.

The worst part of a semi-final is the build-up. The days leading up to it can be hell. People around you don’t want to get too excited because it’s not a final so they don’t know how to act. Do they pat you on the back or do they gee you up? Do they talk about the game at all or do they pretend like it’s not happening? It’s that fear of losing that changes people’s behaviour, which is why the most successful teams are the ones who can push the fear of losing furthest from their mind and just get on with it.

Watch the two games this weekend and you’ll see it. Players will be nervous, they’ll try to limit their mistakes, they’ll take very few risks early on. Semi-finals can often be grinding, unattractive games for exactly that reason.

Come the final, teams can play with an element of abandon because they know they might never get another shot at it. They can do that in a semi-final too but it takes a huge amount of courage and so you don’t see it as often.

Take Ulster and Edinburgh this weekend. No player on either side has played a Heineken Cup semi-final before. They’ve played in big games in other competitions but not this one.

They’re going to find themselves having to be brave in the things they try on the pitch and that’s a lot harder when you’re in an environment you haven’t experienced before.

The message the coaches will be pressing home to the players all week is to remember the good things they’ve done that have got them this far. It’s all about trying to be comfortable in what you’re doing and not playing within yourself for fear of making mistakes. Ulster’s South African players are so important in this area. They will have a confidence on Saturday that nobody in the Edinburgh side can tap into. When you’ve done it at the highest level, you know what to expect.

You don’t shrink and you don’t just do the minimum. Hopefully, the rest of the Ulster players will feed off that.

The biggest problem for Ulster could be that Edinburgh come to Dublin with hardly anybody giving them a chance. If everyone expects you to lose, then it can kill off some of the fear. They’ve just beaten Toulouse and yet people are writing them off anyway.

That gives them every reason to turn up on Saturday with a chip on their shoulder and if that becomes their overriding emotion, there’s a possibility they will forget all about their fears. A team that isn’t afraid to lose and is playing pissed off because they feel they haven’t got the respect they deserve makes for a dangerous combination.

I still think Ulster will come through it. The most impressive thing about their win over Munster was their defence and their organisation. On form and experience they’re the better side and although Edinburgh will be dangerous with ball in hand, Ulster have come too far to let this opportunity go.

In the other semi-final, I’d say the only Leinster player who hasn’t been in a Heineken Cup semi-final before is Brad Thorn and I don’t think we need to worry too much about how he’s going to handle the day. That’s a massive bank of experience which Leinster can tap into and they’re going to need it badly in France.

It’s pretty stunning to see how Leinster have progressed over the past few years. When their second string is putting 54 points on the board like they did in the Pro12 game against Edinburgh, you know there’s a culture there that runs right through the club. They look like a team that can up the ante whenever they want to and there’s complete poise and control about them whenever they play. Plus, their breakdown work is fantastic.

There’s an aura about Leinster these days. I think teams know they can turn up the pressure and build phase after phase until they eventually find the gap. That scares opposition players and gets them out of their rhythm.

Leinster have a baseline of form and they very rarely go below it. For instance, they’ve won all six derby matches in Ireland this year, beating the other provinces home and away. That’s never been done before.

This scenario was always possible if Leinster got their structures right and brought in the right players. When Munster were doing well and winning Heineken Cups, we knew that there had to be a certain amount of envy in the Leinster ranks and that the potential was there for them to become dominant if and when they got over the hump and won the Heineken Cup. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that it was coming through a big semi-final against Munster in 2009 that was the turning point for them.

Before that day in Croke Park, people questioned their toughness, they questioned their scrum, they questioned everything. Those days are gone forever now. We went into that game as pretty strong favourites and they beat us well. In that semi-final, they played without fear and totally deserved to take their place in the final. In winning it, they changed the whole dynamic around them and they’ve kept raising the bar ever since to become the dominant team they are now. They’re the benchmark now, no doubt about it.

Clermont are just about the toughest opposition they could face at this stage, especially in France. Put this game in England and I’d expect Leinster to come through with a little bit to spare. But Clermont in France – even if it isn’t at their own home ground – is a whole different story.

It isn’t that they play above themselves on home soil, more that they play to their potential. It was always away from home that they would let themselves down but they put that one well and truly to bed against Saracens.

That was the day they showed what they are really capable of in this competition. They have a massive squad, with a couple of internationals for each position. The power they bring to their game is phenomenal – their backs alone are huge. The physicality of this game is going to be bone-crunching because that’s the sort of game Leinster will want to play as well.

I honestly can’t call it with any confidence. Against Saracens, Clermont looked a different team than I’ve seen them for a few years. They looked together, they looked like they wanted it. I’ve seen them in the past be totally flaky and inconsistent but that doesn’t seem to be the case this year. When you take that flaw out of a team, they become a really serious proposition.

So although Leinster are probably the best team in Europe at the minute, this is a 50-50 game. Leinster will have to shut out the crowd and get some luck along the way. I’ll take them to sneak it but I wouldn’t be surprised if it went the other way.