Munster’s proud history in the Heineken Cup will help lift the Irish outfit to a new level rather than hinder their chances of progress past reigning champions Toulon in Sunday’s semi-final according to James Downey.
No side has won more Heineken Cup games than Munster (they are level with Toulouse after thumping the French giants in the last eight) and no one can match their number of appearances in the knockout stages of Europe’s greatest club competition.
A brace of tournament wins in 2006 and 2008 were preceded by the same number of runners up showings in 2000 and 2002, while their home ground of Thomond Park has only been breached twice in Heineken Cup history.
They certainly have some story behind them, a story that some believe could be a burden on the current crop of Munstermen looking to emulate the heroes of previous continental campaigns. But that certainly isn’t the way that Downey sees things as they go in search of a brand new chapter in Marseilles and then Cardiff.
“The tradition and history is there and it’s what the club is renowned for. The players come into the club knowing that and every foreigner that comes over, that’s how they know about Munster, from the Heineken Cup,” said Downey, whose response to the suggestion that history may hold them back was about as emphatic as they come.
“Not at all, not at all. It’s a great thing to be associated with teams that have won things and that’s what you want.
“You want to create your own legacy as well, rather than living in the past, though, and you want to win your own trophies and be in the big games that we’ve been in over the last couple of years. It’s a young team coming through and they want to make their own stamp now.”
Toppling Toulon on French soil would go a long way to achieving that given how many global stars grace the squad belonging to the Heineken Cup holders.
And, while they start as substantial under dogs, past performances tell us that Munster won’t lie down without a fight. They nearly always raise their game in Europe and have stunned plenty of French sides in previous years. Throw in last season’s narrow semi-final loss to ASM Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier and this year’s quarter-final crushing of Toulouse, together with the obvious enthusiasm that goes with their extensive experience in Europe, and you’d be a brave punter to bet against Munster bringing their best to the party come Sunday afternoon.
“The lads put their heads down and really pick things up in a Heineken Cup week. It’s a competition where we do produce big performances,” added Downey. “You’re in front of everyone and everyone ups their game for it, really focusses on it and switches on for the Heineken Cup.
“There is a big shift: the PRO12 is your bread and butter and it’s what you do day in and day out but the big crowds and the big games are always in the Heineken. It’s the hype you get that you wouldn’t normally get in the Rabo. The Heineken Cup is the Champions League (of rugby) and you want to be playing there.
“Last year after playing Clermont, we realised in the dressing room that we had let it slip. We had a great chance to beat Clermont away and we said to ourselves that we had to remember that game for this year. We’re more confident now. We’re more experienced and more prepared than we were last year. We’ve got another chance to do it. It’s going to be a great occasion and the lads will really be up for it.”
Chances don’t come around all that often in the Heineken Cup, even if Munster have long been used to creating plenty of them since the tournament began in 1995. Rob Penney’s men missed that chance by the narrowest of margins 12 months ago and Downey, who was a Heineken Cup finalist with Northampton Saints in 2011, is under no illusions as to just how glorious an opportunity Sunday really is.
“Some of the lads have said before that, when they got to the final and won it in 2008, you think it’s going to be easy and you’re going to be in the final every year! But it doesn’t work like that.
“Having lost in a final before, it does give you a sample of it and you hope that’s not your only chance of doing it. You don’t want that ship to have sailed. I’d love to get back there again.
“Sunday is the obstacle in front of both me and the team getting back into a final and we’ll be doing all we can to get to Cardiff. My motivation is pretty high personally and I’m sure every single player is the same.”