Perception is the key if Munster are going to to climb the mountain against Clermont
Playing away in France is all about mindset – if they don’t believe they can win, they won’t
Perception counts for so much when you’re preparing for a big game. Not so much your perception of your opponent, but your perception of yourself and what you’re capable of against that opponent.
Are you good enough?
Are your team-mates good enough?
Can you find a way to convince yourself that the mountain up ahead can be climbed?
For the first few seasons of playing Heineken Cup matches in France, that was definitely one of Munster’s biggest problems. It didn’t really matter which French team it was that we were down to play, the fixture looked daunting from the start. We undervalued ourselves and overvalued them and when you allow that uncertainty to get into your group, you’re in trouble.
It wasn’t until we changed that perception that we changed our fortunes in big away matches. It needed strong leaders and it needed perspective. It needed guys to be able to realise that there’s no tangible reason we shouldn’t be able to go there and win.
No matter how much quality the opposition had, we would always have fancied our chances against them in Thomond Park. So why not fancy our chances over there?
We had to get over that psychological hump. When we started out, we didn’t really know anything about going over there. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t really know where to start. It was just a given that we would be competitive at home but weren’t really expected to do anything outstanding away, certainly not over there.
Expectations are important, no matter how much you try to rise above them and play your own game. People wonder a lot why home advantage is such a big deal in the Heineken Cup but part of it definitely comes down to expectation. You go away from home and people kind of hope that you might do something but they’re not going to get too badly stuck into you if you don’t.
But eventually, it changed. The first win was a huge thing. Just to know you could do it, to realise what it felt like. Not impossible, not unthinkable. Just a game, 15 on 15. Our breakthrough came against Colomiers in 1999.
Over the years, it got to be more common. And then when Munster went into a few seasons of decline, Leinster showed that it was still completely doable to go there and win. It didn’t matter that the budgets were so much bigger or that as the years went by you were playing against clubs that could put out two teams’ worth of quality players. The important thing was that the perception of it being impossible to go there and win was gone.
Yet if you ask around this week, if you talk to anybody in the game about Munster’s trip to play Clermont on Saturday, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who reckons Munster can win. And I include myself in that. Much and all as I hope that they can, it’s very hard to see how they can find a way to win. But then, I said that before the Harlequins game as well and look what happened there.
Still, the perception is out there that this is a foregone conclusion. Clermont are just too strong, they have too much quality, they’re untouchable on home soil.
Even though they’re not strictly playing at home on Saturday, that unbeaten record they have going is the first thing you think of when you set out to face them. They’re at that point at the Stade Marcel Michelin where a lot of teams are beaten before they even take the pitch.
Again, that perception factor works both ways. Not only does the away team not really think it can be done, Clermont themselves know they have the jump on whoever turns up to play them. Winning isn’t a given but when even teams like Toulouse and Toulon are coming and half-thinking that way, the Clermont players get a huge lift in confidence from the start.
They play with comfort and security brought on by the familiarity they have with their surroundings and with their own environment.
What Munster have to build on is the fact that they’re playing in Montpellier this weekend. They were just as fearsome and just as unbeatable on home soil this time last year and yet Leinster were still able to do a number on them in Bordeaux. Maybe they thought they could just treat it as a home game and turn up as if the same rules applied.
If so, then Leinster’s win will have given them fair warning, which would obviously be bad news for Munster.
What sets Clermont apart when teams come to play them is the near desperation they have not to lose. There’s nearly a fear factor with them – they know that their people are demanding for them to keep winning and they know that in the Heineken Cup, some teams turn up knowing that a losing bonus point is a decent result.
That’s another thing that won’t apply on Saturday and in a way, it’s another thing for Munster to cling to. Getting within a score of them isn’t going to be good enough, only a win will mean anything.
But if we get down to the crux of it, Clermont are a serious team no matter where you play them. They have evolved over the years and they look ready to take the next step and finally make it to a Heineken Cup final and probably then to win it.
Look at the strength of their side they sent to play Leinster in the Aviva before Christmas and compare it to the side they sent to play Munster even just a few years previously.
The Heineken Cup is important to them now in a way it wasn’t previously. For pure quality and strength in depth, Munster shouldn’t have a chance.
The reality is that if Clermont turn up and hit the high notes that they’re capable of, Munster will be in trouble. It could be a return to the days of a heavy beating by a French side. It’s cup rugby and it’s Munster so there’s always a chance. But we can’t pretend it isn’t a huge task that faces them.
If they somehow manage to do it, it will be their greatest win. No doubt about it. If they don’t – even if they take a bit of a beating – they will still feel they salvaged something with that win over Harlequins.
There are 20 teams in Europe who started out in this competition back in October who would love to be facing the challenge they’re facing. They’re in the last four of the Heineken Cup and they put pride and spirit back into the jersey, whatever happens this weekend.
But to extend it further, Munster have to go to the limit and then find a new limit that has been beyond them before. It’s like going to the bottom of their well and then finding you have to dig further to find water. That’s all Munster can have on their mind going to France.
Never mind perception because it isn’t real. It’s only what people think. Go out and make them think something else.