The wonderful movie, The Usual Suspects, is a convoluted story of intrigue, with the talented cast of players, dominated by the fear of one fictional powerful overlord, Keyser Söze. The storyline is a labyrinth, manipulated by a supposedly simple-minded criminal whose genius bamboozles the investigating detective while he, the actual perpetrator, sits meekly in the detective’s office telling the tall tales. Hiding in full sight.
This season’s Heineken Cup winners are sitting under our noses, hiding in full sight. The usual suspects are loitering in ominous fashion, but any European story that includes the hopes of an outside team “bolting” and stealing a Champions Cup win can all but be dismissed.
Clubs that have a long history of winning in Europe comprehend that the mindset for success in this competition is paramount. Winning in Europe takes a different mindset than success in domestic club rugby.
Let’s take Exeter as a case study.
They are fit, well coached, and have a highly successful culture within the English Premiership, but they have yet to establish the unique mindset necessary to gain success in the European competition.
Most English and French clubs struggle in the Champions Cup because they are convinced the Premiership and the Top 14 are the highest standard of club rugby in Europe. The rest of the rugby planet fully understands this to be blatantly false. Clubs like Exeter have yet to understand that the quality of the play they produced in their domestic league must be surpassed to win in Europe.
If Exeter break through a Brexit mindset and comprehend that European rugby is played at standards above all domestic competitions across the continent, then they have the talent to progress.
Munster have a similar problem. Their exceptional record at Thomond Park guarantees they will be strong quarter-final contenders. I am certain that the wisdom Johann van Graan displayed in appointing Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham to his staff will bear fruit and see major improvements.
Having Saracens in their pool is obviously problematic and compounds Munster’s major issue. At home they are close to unbeatable but on the road they are vulnerable.
Van Grann must build his team’s mental grit to scrap out those vital away points required to qualify for a home quarter-final and semi-final. If Munster qualify and are forced into away games in the knockout stages, their past form suggests that their road ends there. Over the next four months this Munster team must prove to itself that the days of poor away form are over.
Leinster are a different beast.
Leinster’s form has been nothing short of awesome. Week after week they have played exciting, entertaining, winning rugby. They have constantly blooded younger players, managing their retuning internationals with individual care, while all the time fighting to maintain the highest of playing standards.
Their performance in Galway last week, against a very well-coached Connacht team under Andy Friend, was exceptional. The Sportsground is one of Leinster’s least favourite places. Many generations of Leinster teams carry the scars of getting ambushed in Galway.
Can be dismissed
The way this Leinster team performed tells us that any thoughts that their dynasty was under threat can be dismissed.
Leinster have drawn the current Top 14 leaders, Lyon, in their pool. The French side have been impressive but are leading a domestic competition that has been exceptional in its mediocrity. Whether Lyon are the real deal or a French blip, created by the World Cup, will be determined at the Matmut Stadium next week.
Leinster possess the mindset to achieve success within the unique environment of the Champions Cup, plus they possess great playing and coaching talent. They are setting the bar very high for all other teams – except Saracens.
Saracens at full strength are awesome. They have just been given a fair old hiding off the field, which sees them docked 35 points in the English Premiership. Their coach, Mark McCall, has said the points reduction may force them to focus on avoiding relegation from the Premiership and field less-experienced teams in Europe, which would mean the prayers coming out of Thomond Park have been answered.
Ulster are improving in every match and are real contenders for a quarter-final. Their main pool rivals, Clermont, were humbled last week by a rampant Toulouse. In pouring rain, Toulouse played as only they can. Offloading, counter-attacking, gathering chip kicks all leading to beautiful tries.
While that is good news for Ulster, it makes tough reading for the men from Galway who have Toulouse in their pool. Toulouse appear to again be quarter-final bound.
There are some unknowns that will determine who runs out at the May 23rd final in Marseille.
Firstly, will Saracens commit rugby hara-kiri and sacrifice the Champions Cup in order to protect their domestic position? I would suggest Saracens will continue to aim to qualify for the play-offs because they will not make the Premierships last four, so their season will be effectively over when the European play-offs start. They will attempt to walk both paths with the emphasis on the Premiership. However, I expect them to field full strength teams against Munster. If Sarries are safe from Premiership relegation come April, then the rest are in deep trouble.
If Munster can overcome their mental failures on the road, especially against Racing 92 in Paris, then the men in red have a big chance.
All of these scenarios will be happily accepted by Keyser Söze, wearing blue and hiding in full sight, in D4.