Victories on the road in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals are not quite the rarities they once were: there have been five in the last four tournaments, which marks something of an increase in a competition that once went three full seasons without any. But life will be pretty hard for the travelling teams this weekend. Harlequins have it in them to beat Leinster; I can see Leicester knocking out Bath; and I'm sure Munster, the champions, will be too strong for Ospreys in Limerick – a really tough place to go – tomorrow.
What makes Munster as good as they are? Most importantly, they play at Test-match intensity virtually every time they take the field. There never seems to be any question of them having to get up for a game, because they are never down. When I look at the performances of Doug Howlett, the magnificent New Zealand wing who joined them after the last World Cup, I see a representation of all that is best in their rugby.
A lot of coaches consider Howlett to be the best southern hemisphere signing of the lot and I can't disagree. He has probably played at a higher level, more consistently, than any of the other big-name recruits. But it's not all down to him. Munster have made it easier for him to make the contribution he has because there is a non- negotiable level of performance expected by the team. In the All Blacks, he was completely familiar with those demands. When he went to Munster, he was essentially carrying on where he'd left off.
I remember a chat with another highly successful All Black, the outside-half Andrew Mehrtens, about his experience when he first came up north. The big problem for him was that expectations weren't high enough. The best players need external motivation – something in the club environment that forces them to play to their international level. Munster do this extremely effectively. There are demands from within the club, and demands from the passionate supporters outside it.
Munster get their fundamentals right whenever they take the field. This goes for Toulouse, too, although their back play is so stellar people don't recognise the amount of hard work their forwards put in to make it possible. The Frenchmen are highly capable when it comes to the basics, never committing more people to the breakdown than absolutely necessary, and so give themselves numbers out wide. This creates one-on-one opportunities and gives them the chance to indulge their uniquely effective offloading game. I believe they'll prove the exception to the rule this weekend by beating Cardiff Blues at the Millennium Stadium.
At the start of the tournament, I'm not sure too many people would have fancied Harlequins' chances against a top Irish province, but over recent months, they have been as clever as anyone at playing right on the edge and stretching the law to the limit. At times, they seem to out-Leicester Leicester, which takes some doing. Perhaps it's the natural consequence of having an old Tiger like Dean Richards running the show.
Their home-and-away victories over Stade Français, based around the ball-slowing abilities of a determined and completely selfless pack of forwards, were a case in point. I thought the Parisians would end a decade of waiting by winning the title this time round, but against Quins, they were too squeaky-clean for their own good and found themselves being outsmarted.
In the all-Premiership tie at the Walkers Stadium, Bath know what it is to win there in this competition, so the venue won't worry them. They will, however, be concerned at their form, which has dropped right off just lately as their opponents have started to get to Butch James, who pulls all the strings at No 10.
They seem to have this thing about playing attacking rugby, from everywhere on the field, all the time – about getting the ball to the wings, rather than earning the right to spread it by going direct as well as wide. There is no mystery about Bath at the moment, nothing of the art of deception, and if they play against Leicester the way they've played just recently, they'll risk suffering a thorough beating.Reuse content