Return legs in Champions Cup offer chance at redemption

Despite heavy defeat to Munster, Leicester have good track record in return games

Dejected Leicester Tigers players after their 38-0 defeat to Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images.

Dejected Leicester Tigers players after their 38-0 defeat to Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images.

 

A week can indeed be a long time in rugby. Almost uniquely in the rugby calendar, rounds three and four of the European Champions Cup offers vanquished teams the opportunity for redemption, salvation, revenge – call it what you will – only a week later. And nothing seems to motivate a team more than having a whiff of vengeance in their nostrils.

Irish rugby only has to recall the events of November to realise this, and specifically the All Blacks’ mood when pitching up at the Aviva Stadium a fortnight after being beaten in Chicago.

By rights, the scale of Munster’s 38-0 win over Leicester Tigers should make them warm favourites to reverse the Tigers back-to-back wins over them at the same point only a year ago.

However, history has taught us that there is no more vengeful team at this stage of the competition than the wounded Tigers.

In their 19 years competing in the European Cup, no-one has ever completed a back-to-back double over the two-time champions and five-time finalists. Six times in the current format Leicester have lost in round three, all of them away, and in the ensuing half dozen revenge missions a week later they have won five and drawn one at Welford Road.

Most strikingly, when losing by 33-0 to Ulster in 2003, they bounced back the following weekend to win 49-7. It’s also worth recording that in their last 32 European games at Welford Road, Leicester have lost once.

Different place

A packed Welford Road next Saturday afternoon will be every bit as febrile as Thomond Park was last Saturday. Although they are largely unchanged from last season, Munster’s mentality is in a different place, and so too their defence.

There is a new aggression to their defensive line speed, and more of a mix between choke and chop tackles. Cue the nil part. Take a bow Jacques Nienaber.

But likewise Leicester’s mentality and physicality will be in a different place next Saturday, if hopefully not on the scale of Manu Tuilagi’s wildness. At the very least, though, Leicester will not permit Munster to dominate the collisions as they did at Thomond Park.

As an aside, Glasgow’s win over a Racing team seemingly having lost some of their desire since last season’s French championship win, leaves the Parisians – last season’s finalists – fighting for their Euro survival next Friday night.

Were Glasgow to complete a double, it’s conceivable Munster will face Racing’s espoirs away and at home when renewing acquaintances with Ronan O’Gara in the new year.

Despite the most entertaining win of the weekend, ominously for Ulster, on the two occasions Clermont have lost away in round three, by 11-9 to Harlequins in 1999 and notably by 31-14 to Exeter last year, they responded with 32-9 and 42-10 wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin.

Prior to last season’s round-six defeat to Bordeaux, Les Jaunards had won 25 games out of 25 at their home fortress. They have avenged that loss with 40-16 and 49-33 wins over Bordeaux in the Top 14 and in the European Cup in recording seven wins out of seven at home this season.

By contrast, Connacht have all the motivation in the world when hosting Wasps on Saturday at the Sportsground in what is effectively a win-or-bust scenario for them. But there was enough in their fluctuating and absorbing defeat at the Ricoh Arena to give them hope.

That game was a reminder as to the importance of a lineout general. Ally Muldowney’s loss remains acutely felt, all the more so as the injured Andrew Browne and James Cannon (whose loan deal from Wasps does not permit him to play in these matches) were unavailable in Coventry.

Defensive malfunctions

Even so, the lineout, restart and defensive malfunctions, along with their goal-kicking, are potentially fixable in six days, whatever about their casualty list.

Leinster and Clermont are the only sides to have completed a back-to-back double over Northampton, and that was as far back as 2000 and 2001. Since then, Northampton have responded to four defeats in round three by winning three times and drawing once a week later.

Significantly, after losing 25-6 and 40-7 at home to Ulster and Leinster in 2012 and ’13, Northampton came across to Ireland the following weekend and won 10-9 and 18-9. That said, they have looked nothing like that side as their season unravels.

As eight defeats in 13 Premiership or European games this season demonstrates, there is something not right with the Saints, and on top of the results from the investigation into their treatment of George North’s latest concussion issue, there will be the further distraction this week of Dylan Hartley’s inevitable suspension – a third high-profile case in the recent weeks.

Good old Dylan. What is to be done with him? It’s easy and populist on this side of the Irish Sea to condemn him and call for an extended ban, but with a rap sheet that has so far included eye gouging, biting, punching, verbal abuse of a referee, elbowing and head butting, a swinging arm to the head pretty much completes the set.

Who knows what demons sparked this latest act of violence, whether it was being kept on the bench after starting only one game for his club this season, or the presence of Eddie Jones or even Stuart Lancaster in the stands, given their contrasting investments in this volatile player.

Certainly no disciplinary hearing can cite good behaviour, no matter how contrite he may be. Were his suspension to conclude in time for the Six Nations, and he to remain England captain, it also would send out all the wrong messages about the sport.

Not having learned from six previous suspensions, Hartley clearly has problems. Until he sorts them out, there is the risk of a serious injury to an opponent.

Hence, Hartley’s issues are now a truly serious issue for the game.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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