London Irish have learnt their Heineken Cup lessons the hard way and head coach Toby Booth intends to turn that pain into the Exiles’ gain.
The 2008 semi-finalists crashed out at the end of the Pool stage last season – despite beating defending champions Leinster at their Dublin fortress in Round 1 – with home and away defeats to the Scarlets causing all the damage.
“When I was asked last season how I felt after we had missed out on qualification I said I felt ‘suicidal’ and that was because we had beaten the reigning champions in their own backyard, yet somehow didn’t manage to make it through to the knock-out stages,” said Booth.
“To win at the RDS, where nobody expected us to succeed, was special. But in the Heineken Cup you have to be a model of consistency – that’s the stark reality of this competition.
“In the Premiership you can recover from a blip, but there is no chance to recover over six matches in the Heineken Cup. The biggest lesson we learned from last season was not from the games against Leinster, but the defeats against the Scarlets.
“We paid the price for what we failed to do against them At this level, where players are so evenly matched, it is not just about tactics and skill – it is about the mental and emotional fatigue of being under that type of scrutiny in every game.
“We haven’t brushed last season’s disappointments under the carpet, far from it. We have spoken about it as a group and went back over every game. The game may be moving on, but we know those situations will occur again and we can’t afford to make the same mistakes.”
London Irish will be out to make a similar instant Round 1 impact this time – and against Irish opposition yet again with former double champions Munster travelling to Reading for their Saturday evening showdown under the Madejski Stadium floodlights.
“The Irish connection is still very important to us,” said Booth. “It is not a priority in terms of recruitment, but it is a massive issue for the fans and that makes it important for the club.
“I know Bob Casey is immensely looking forward to that first game against Munster, just as he was last season when we played Leinster, his home province.
“It only takes one guy to fuel that enthusiasm within the rest of the squad. He was close to tears after we won at the RDS and that passion spread throughout the rest of the team.
“We are really excited about playing Munster. In my time here we have never played a competitive game against them, so it is a nice final piece in the jig-saw for us.
“I’m sure it is going to be a massive occasion both on and off the field. Everyone is looking forward to it.
“I’m sure everyone will tell you they have got the toughest Pool, but I think I am safe in saying that. During the Pool draw all you could hear was groan, followed by groan, followed by groan as the top seeds from each pot came out in the same Pool.
“Would we want an easy run to the final? Of course we would. But you have to enjoy the challenge of a Pool like ours. There is great excitement about playing Munster because of the Irish connection.
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“The Ospreys play a similar game to us, and we have had some cracking games against them, and then you have the Manchester City of rugby in the south of France, Toulon.
“The individuals involved in this Pool are some of the best in the world – Jonny Wilkinson, James Hook, Ronan O’Gara and so many others.”