What a summer. My favourite singer Michael Jackson dies, my favourite actor Patrick Swayze dies and then my favourite chef Keith Floyd dies. As the Heineken Cup cranks up again I'd like to wish my favourite team Harlequins all the best in this year's competition. Harlequins won't get out of their pool in this year's competition – we all know that is not the point though. What is of more than paramount importance – will last year's champions make it?
I have received a fair amount of guff by email over the years. One of the things I received recently which was worthy of mention was a study done on the important psychological differences between world class athletes who win major championships just once and those who win repeatedly. The study based its results on a TAIS (The Attentional And Interpersonal Style) inventory which is a 144-item questionnaire that measures 18 different performance relevant characteristics. Everything from concentration skills to concentration errors, impulsiveness and speed of decision-making to sporting analytical ability or awareness. The study had a data base of just over 10,000 athletes – of which 239 had won either Olympic or World Championship medals. From their tests they were able to accurately predict who would be a one-time winner only and who would be a multiple champion.
So, to the best of my ability I sent off Leinster's profile to the TAIS institute and they wrote back on their findings as to whether Leinster would be one time champions or multiple winners. Their scientific conclusions were short and succinct. They said "No – 'cos you ain't got Rocky Elsom no more."
Leinster are now a completely different team to the one that took the pot in May of this year. They don't score that many tries anymore, yet they don't leak that many either. But you can't defend your way to a Heineken Cup Championship. They had a pitiful percentage in terms of bonus points – they were either unwilling or unable to put four tries on nearly everyone – most of their bonus points were losing ones. Leinster have won this season by strangulation, clever tactical back-three play and turning pressure into points via Johnny Sexton or Fergus McFadden's boot. Maybe it's just 'away' policy but certainly Leinster are just not in the groove at the moment. There is no question that they have the gears but maybe they have just fallen in love with their 6-5 win over Harlequins.
Either way they will have to crank it up. Irrespective of the result last night, they were lucky to extricate themselves from a precarious round four/five scenario last season – it's just not good for the blood pressure.
If they need to go to Sunbury on 23 January looking for a win then they might just not get it and in all probability they will need bonus-point wins playing at home to Brive and Llanelli and hope Brive are out of it by the time round five comes around.
The draw doesn't fall favourably for them this time in the sense that they have difficult away matches in Brive and Llanelli in rounds two and three and that all pre-supposes that they aren't hijacked by London Irish at home. There are two things that are worrying from watching Leinster and London Irish play. Leinster defend in very narrow inside channels and usually have the pace and confidence to get to the wide when the ball gets there. London Irish are one of the few sides who have the pace to out-flank them. I'm sure Leinster's video guys have been burning the midnight oil. The tight is another area of concern – if John Fogarty plays then Leinster will have a line-out platform.
The scrum though could be the difference. Faan Rautenbach (great name) and Clarke Dermody have done real damage to everyone in the Premiership. An early season friendly in Donnybrook saw Leinster take an awful long time to subdue London Irish's scrummaging ascendancy. Maybe London Irish took their foot off the pedal and put that note in their book. It is rare that mutes win or lose a game of rugby – but Leinster more and more have become reliant on set plays off locked scrums from 30-40m out to get over their opponents' line.
Leinster – if they play to the best of their ability – don't have anything to fear from anyone in their group. Brive might just be more worried about their 10th place in the Top 14 rather than their Heino chances. If I was Brive I'd be asking who spent half their budget buying Gollum's precious (Andy Goode), Shaun Perry and Steve Thompson. They might not have the best team in France but they certainly have the ugliest.
Rocky was central to all of Leinster's important tries in vital games. He's gone and I'm not sure where they are going to get their tries from now. They should get out of their group but retention is a different matter entirely. Hunger, direction and collective will get diluted many times when the quest has been fulfilled. Our friends down south though might have re-discovered what it takes.
Like I said last season – this season only.