The last time I was involved in a major European club occasion, I took Bath to San Sebastian for a Heineken Cup semi-final with Biarritz.
We travelled with bags of expectation, but fell short. There were reasons, looking back: at that point in 2006, Bath were on a transitional shift from the extremely limited style of rugby they had played over the previous three or four years to something more ambitious. But the fact remains that when it came to the crunch, we – and I include myself in this – failed to summon the courage to play the kind of challenging game required to win a match of that magnitude.
Nothing has changed. Now rugby has reached the knockout stage of this season's Heineken Cup – the "real deal" time of the season, where there are no second chances – it strikes me that many leading sides still talk about playing challenging rugby in the days leading up to a game, and still find reasons not to do it once they find themselves on the field. The question that interests me is this: to what extent is the gap between intention and delivery determined by what happens in the days before the match?
Here, in no particular order, are some of the forces at work as coaches and players prepare for the big occasion. Firstly, there is the overview of the game. Is a team looking at the contest as an exercise in collision, or an exercise in evasion? If it's the former, there is every chance that whatever they attempt to do on the day, the game will turn into a dogfight. Secondly, is there an assumption that a softening-up period lasting 15 or 20 minutes, or maybe longer, is inevitable? If that's the view, how prepared will a team be to take the scoring chance that presents itself in the opening 60 seconds? When you consider that this may be the last opportunity they get, it's a crucial issue.
Thirdly, how is the importance of the game impacting on the collective mindset? Does the scale of the contest edge coaches and players towards a "no-risk" approach? You must know my views on this by now: if a coach is doing his job properly, risk doesn't exist. Still, it is a common reaction when the heat comes on at the back end of a major tournament.
Fourthly, to what extent is the venue a factor on a team's thinking? Northampton take on Munster at Thomond Park this evening, and there's no doubting that it's a tough place to visit. Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, insisted this week that the stadium held no fears for his players, but how many teams down the years have failed to reconcile that kind of sentiment with the reality of the situation once they take the field? To my mind, sides who restrict themselves to playing a style of rugby with which they are wholly comfortable are unlikely to travel to a place like Limerick and go in with all guns blazing. To win there, and at places like it, you have to be prepared to leave your comfort zone and stretch yourself.
Finally, how much analysis of the opposition is going on? The balance between a team working out ways of stopping the other side and thinking of the things they need to do to win the game is very fine and frequently misjudged. It is incredibly easy to overcook the first aspect and leave the second underdone, thereby ensuring that players go into the game with an unnecessarily negative mindset.
There is a good deal of food for thought there, I'm sure you'll agree, and we haven't even set foot on the pitch yet! I'll be interested to see if the away quarter-finalists – Northampton, Ospreys, who make the familiar trip to San Sebastian, and Stade Français, who must play in Toulouse – find it in themselves to put their own stamp on proceedings, rather than seek to soak up pressure and defuse their hosts' attacking game.
How can this be done? For a start, I'd like to see the visiting sides show a willingness to play off turnover ball, wherever they might secure it, and run back a few opposition kicks. I'd like to see them raise the tempo by opting for quick free-kicks and tap-and-go penalties. Back in 2001, when England were behind against France, I remember Matt Dawson tapping the ball to himself on halfway pretty much against instructions that had just been delivered at the interval. A couple of passes from Phil Greening and Austin Healey later, Richard Hill was touching down for a try. We had taken the lead for the first time, and never relinquished it.
I'd also like to see teams countering pressure with pressure. All eight quarter-finalists will find themselves under the cosh at some point, and most will react by clearing the ball any old how, taking in a few gulps of air and thinking, "Thank God for that." But there is another way, as Austin famously demonstrated while playing for England in South Africa in 2000. On that occasion, he ended a long period of heroic defence by tapping and going from close to our line, much to the horror of everyone in the camp. A few seconds later, Tim Stimpson scored. Admittedly, his perfectly good try was ruled out by the video ref. Still, you get my point.
When the going really gets tough, those players with their creative heads on are the ones who will make the difference. In rugby, as in many walks of life, expectation fuels belief, which fuels reality. The right kind of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that is a thing of value with the stakes as high as they are now.Reuse content