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Heineken Cup
Irish eyes on top prize
Ruaidhri O'Connor
October 5, 2009

There was a lot to be read from the body language of the assembled players and coaches at the Irish launch of the 2009-10 Heineken Cup at a plush Dublin hotel on Monday.

Champions Leinster strode around confidently - all business - chatting candidly about the prospect of kicking off their defence against London Irish with an assured sense of their place as holders after they dismantled Munster at the weekend.

Ulster, in the eleventh season since their famous 1999 victory in the city, were quietly buzzing, unaffected by the seismic events of the weekend after a run of form that sees them sit second in the Magners League table.

And at the other end of the spectrum were Munster. Paul O'Connell and Tony McGahan sat uncomfortably at the top table, back in town just two days after they received a comprehensive hiding from their biggest rivals. The tone was downbeat and the recriminations from Saturday's 30-0 defeat lingered in the air.

Munster have lost heavily to Leinster before, notably in last season's Croke Park semi-final, but the manner of defeat at the RDS will have rocked the proud province to its foundations.

Northampton Saints may feel the full brunt of a Munster backlash at Franklin's Gardens next Saturday, but away from the bosom of Thomond Park, against a side sitting fourth in the Guinness Premiership, the potential for further disappointment is very real if coach and captain fail to lift their troops.

After an unsettling pre-season that has prevented McGahan from using all of his front-line players together due to the IRFU player guidelines and some niggles, the Australian will be thankful that next up is the visit of Benneton Treviso, meaning his side won't face French champions Perpignan until December when he'll be hoping the team will have gelled.

Captain O'Connell says that the side need to get back to basics after Saturday's crushing defeat.

"The guys know we are a successful enough team and being beaten 30-0 by Leinster means a shift in mindset is needed" he said. "It has been a disrupted pre-season for us with the Irish camps, with Lions players coming back and players coming back and getting injured. Last year one of our great strengths was that we had a good, long pre-season together and you could see the level of consistency in the Magners League.

"As a result, some of the rugby we played in the Heineken Cup was the best we have ever played, apart from the semi-final obviously. One thing we did last year was to treat every game as big as the other, and in certain games we made sure that when we went on the road, our standards stayed high.

"That's something we aspire to do all the time, and that's why Saturday night was so dreadfully disappointing for us."

Leinster, meanwhile, are riding high after their unexpected victory in Edinburgh last season. Rocky Elsom may be gone, but he's left them with a sense of self belief that was sorely lacking in the years prior to his arrival.

Nathan Hines has added a steely edge, while Jonathan Sexton has seamlessly slotted into Felipe Contepomi's boots at fly-half. On Friday they open their account at home to a London Irish side who are enjoying a fruitful beginning to the English season, having already won in Dublin in pre-season.

With a trip to Brive next in line and a double header against the Scarlets in December, the hosts will look for the maximum from this clash, and captain Leo Cullen is under no illusions as to the challenge his side face.

"There's a different pressure from the tag we might have had as under-achievers in the past. Now that tag is gone, there's a different pressure in the group. It comes more from within, from the players," he said. "Even at the end of last season, we talked about not being a once-off team. The squad are hungry to move on and be successful, but it's obviously a very, very tough competition to win and the standard gets better every year."

The dark horses from an Irish perspective are Brian McLaughlin's Ulster who have been quietly finding form in Belfast, but their task will be a tough one with an opening Friday night at home to Bath before a trip to Edinburgh a week later.

But given their away form has been a constant downfall in previous seasons, the decision of Stade Francais to move their home game to Brussels could work in Ulster's favour, taking some of the intimidating factor out of the occasion. Certainly, McLaughlin is excited about his first European season as coach.

"We're ticking along nicely and we're very pleased with our form so far," he said. "We'd a bit of blip in our first game in the Magners League against the Dragons but we've been playing consistently, we've still got a fair bit to go but we're pleased with where we are."

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