Harlequins Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea believes his team’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Munster at Thomond Park is the “ultimate” test in European rugby.
Harlequins, who won the tournament in 2001 and 2004 and are bidding to become the first club to win the title three times, won the all-English quarter-final against London Wasps 32-22 to earn a trip to Ireland and a Saturday showdown with the former double Heineken Cup winners.
“Thomond Park is the ultimate challenge in European competition so our intensity levels will have to be really high,” said Limerick-born O’Shea who won 35 Irish caps and played his club rugby with Leinster and London Irish.
“The players are really excited about the prospect of a European semi-final and this is certainly a big match for us.
“All I can ever ask of my team is that they give everything to the performance – then it’s simply a case of the best men win so we will see what happens.
“This is all about Harlequins playing in a semi-final rather than about me. Obviously I always enjoy going home and I will look forward to taking the team there as I would for any big occasion. We are all looking forward to it immensely.
“Harlequins have won this competition twice before but it is now harder than ever to win because the introduction of the Heineken Cup teams has taken it to another level.
“If you just look at the semi-finalists of the Amlin, none of them would look out of place gracing the last four of the Heineken Cup.
“We’ve experienced it all in the Amlin Challenge Cup this season. We were virtually flooded in Bayonne and they were bailing hay in the snow at Connacht but this has been a great competition to be involved with.”
And as a former Leinster player O’Shea knows all about the mental and physical demands of playing Munster on their own patch and is in ideal position to pass on that knowledge to Chris Robshaw and his team.
“I have always thought of Thomond Park and Munster as the heart and soul of Irish rugby,” said O’Shea. “The reason Ireland turned the corner at international level was because the guys from Munster started to win in Europe on a regular basis. That provided the spine and humour of the Ireland team.
“And I know it’s going to be a great occasion. The crowd there are very knowledgeable, incredibly passionate and very loud.”
Harlequins have only won one of their six previous European contests with Munster, winning 48-40 at the Twickenham Stoop in the 1997 / 1998 Heineken Cup, and have struggled on the road in the Premiership this season.
Quins have won just one of their 10 Premiership away games, though five of the eight defeats – they drew at London Wasps on the opening day of the season – have been by seven points or less.
“Our away record has not been great this season and we have lost quite a few games by just one score, which has been very disappointing. But on our day we know we can be a very, very difficult team to beat and can challenge anyone.
“We have sat down and committed to a style of rugby that we believe suits us and will make as a very strong team for the future.”
Munster are targeting a prestigious European double as they bid to become the first team outside of England to scoop both Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup honours.
London Wasps, Bath Rugby and Northampton Saints have won both ERC tournaments and now Munster are through to the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals and clash with Harlequins at Thomond Park on Saturday for a place in the final at Cardiff City Stadium on Friday, 20 May.
“This semi-final is really important,” said Irish international back row forward Denis Leamy
“We have the chance to win a piece of silverware and it is vital that we do everything we can to make that happen. Obviously we were disappointed that we went out of the Heineken Cup but it’s a chance to win a European trophy and we’ll be going after that.
“It could be easy to be snobby about the Amlin Challenge Cup but when you look at the quality of the sides that were in the last eight, three or four could easily be in the Heineken Cup.
“And there are some very good cup teams left in it – it is a very good competition and you have to do all the hard work to get there.
“It would be very special if we could go on and win it. Obviously it’s the first time we’ve played in it but we have the chance to create a little bit of history. It’s a trophy and, as we have set a target of winning two this season, if we don’t do that we’ll be gutted.
“People are coming up to us in the street and asking us about the game and that’s always a good indicator of the excitement around the game.
“We haven’t seen a whole load of Harlequins but just from playing them over the years we know they have some quality players and are a quality side.
“They have guys like Nick Easter and Mike Brown who are playing really well at the moment and there is no doubt that they are a top side and that it will be a tough game.”
Director of Coaching Tony McGahan added: “The Amlin Challenge Cup is extremely important for us – especially after we missed qualification for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.
“We needed to re-set ourselves and our targets for the rest of the season and ultimately that lies with the Amlin Challenge Cup. We had a hard away win against Brive, now we have Harlequins at home and we are well aware of how well they are travelling in the Aviva Premiership.
“They have certainly added to their game and have some form players, particularly Nick Evans, Danny Care and Nick Easter.
“They possess a great threat from the backs and, like all good sides, they are really well balanced. They have the ability to play a number of styles and find a way to win. That’s what they’re doing particularly well in the Premiership.
“We are not looking to soften the blow of missing out on the Heineken Cup, it’s about re-setting ourselves and there’s an opportunity to win some silverware. That’s a major focus for us; we can’t keep looking back at negatives. As much as it’s been talked about we left that behind at Toulon.
“It’s really important for this squad as we’re about competing and getting results. That’s what professional sport and professional rugby is about and we have to meet expectations that really are a driving force behind us.
“There are some high quality sides still in it and, if you look through the semi-finalists, Harlequins, Clermont, Stade Francais and ourselves, you have four sides that could easily be running out in a semi-final of the Heineken Cup.