Munster will be strong favorites to advance to the semi-finals when they take on French side Perpignan at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, while Leinster make the infinitely more demanding journey to Toulouse in the south west of France.
Not only regarded as Europe’s most powerful club, Toulouse are also a match for any of the best teams in the southern hemisphere. Their city is a hot-bed of rugby, where the sport generates the sort of passion and fanaticism that might be compared to Gaelic games in Ireland.
As if playing against a line-up jammed with France internationals isn’t demanding enough, Leinster will also be dropped into a highly intimidating venue where visiting teams almost never win. In short, Brian O’Driscoll and his teammates will be praying for a miracle.
Because so many of their players have been away on international duty for the best part of eight weeks, it’s as if the Irish provinces have to re-start their seasons. Even if the players know each other well, the tactics and habits of the Ireland squad now have to be forgotten as the Munster and Leinster coaches take over preparations.
With the likes of Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, David Wallace, Denis Leamy, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horan and Donncha O’Callaghan starting against Perpignan, Munster should be able to paper over the cracks that might exist to reach the last four of a competition which remains the province’s Holy Grail.
One of the most consistent teams in European rugby, but agonizingly beaten twice in finals, Munster are once again Ireland’s standard bearers. If they defeat Perpignan, they will either meet Toulouse in France, or Leinster at Lansdowne Road in the semi-final. There’s no guessing which opponent they would prefer.
Leinster boast O’Driscoll, who was recently voted Player of the Championship from the Six Nations, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy, Denis Hickie, Malcolm O’Kelly as well as their outstanding Argentine playmaker Felipe Contepomi, and at least they have no burden of expectation.
If the might of Toulouse stands in their way, so too, by a twist of fate, does one of their former players. Trevor Brennan has gone from Leinster reject to star of French rugby in the space of three seasons.
Rugby in Ireland remains a largely white-collar institution with many of its players emerging from the country’s top fee-paying schools, so Brennan was an unlikely hero in the first place. His school in West Dublin wasn’t too bothered with rugby, and he was taught the basics at the local club Barnhall. Big, strong, but undeniably raw, Brennan sought more recognition by moving on to a more established club, but instead he gained mostly notoriety.
He was less a smoking gun and more one packed with ammunition. Even as he made progress, it was as if the rules were for other players. Coaches admired the physical material, but weren’t too keen on the disciplinary record. Gradually though, Brennan learned to channel his aggression, and soon after rugby turned professional, he was awarded a Leinster contract.
He prospered and soon joined the Ireland squad with whom he went on to win 13 international caps, playing in the 1999 World Cup finals. Some of his teammates were already qualified lawyers, engineers and doctors, while Brennan had once worked as a milkman. To his credit, he never sought to bridge the gap, and to reinvent himself. Supporters loved him for his honesty, and for his forceful play, while most opponents hated him for other reasons.
However, he dropped off the radar when Eddie O’Sullivan took over as Ireland coach, and then Leinster were unable to guarantee him first-team rugby. Brennan was checking out the opportunities in England, when an offer from Toulouse came in. He was slightly embarrassed that the best club in Europe had come knocking on his door, but Toulouse had liked his aggression, his work-rate, his uncompromising style and they were confident he would adapt to French rugby.
His critics reckoned he would be back home before the end of the first season, but nearly four years later, Brennan has become a key figure in the club’s continuing success, and playing some of the best rugby of his career in his early 30s, he has won the European Cup twice while Leinster have faltered.
There is a touch of bitterness about the way he was deemed persona non grata by Ireland, and about the way he was marginalized by his former province. In an interview in the Sunday Independent last week, he said he had no interested in playing for Ireland again, and that if Toulouse had a game on the same day as Ireland, he would unhesitatingly choose Toulouse.
But he still has an affinity with Leinster, and is friendly with a lot of their players. That, though, won’t prevent him from maybe settling one or two scores in Toulouse on Saturday.
GAA, GPA gear
up for battle
On the one hand you read that the GAA took in nearly