Lions tourist Ugo Monye is hoping Saturday’s European encounter between Harlequins and Munster will provide the perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate his World Cup credentials.
The Quins wing won a brace of Test caps for the Lions in South Africa two summers ago but has since fallen out of favour with England.
Former Sevens star Monye only made his senior international debut in November 2008 but a series of blistering performances throughout that season ensured his place in the 2009 Lions squad was no real surprise.
The 28-year-old replicated that form in a Lions shirt, starting the first and third Tests and scoring five tries in six games. After heavy criticism after the first-Test defeat in Durban, Monye bounced back in fine fashion with a breakaway try as the Lions triumphed in Johannesburg a fortnight later. His tour efforts unsurprisingly led to him being tipped for big things on his return but injury and a dip in form soon saw him slip out of Martin Johnson’s Elite Player Squad.
Monye missed out on England’s Six Nations success earlier this year and he is acutely aware that time is ticking away as he aims to win his place back ahead of this autumn’s global gathering in New Zealand. The World Cup countdown is well and truly underway and, for Monye, Quins’ Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in Limerick is the latest step on the path to an international recall.
"It has been frustrating for me seeing guys playing well in my position for England, but I’ve backed them and supported them. It has been great seeing England come on over the past 15 months, but I really want to get into the mix for the World Cup," said Monye.
"There is a training squad due to be announced in May and I know that all the England coaches will be watching the European games this weekend. That means I’ve got to put in the kind of performance I know that is within me.
"I feel I am playing some good rugby. I was a bit slow when I started my comeback from injury, but I think that was because I came back three weeks too early and hadn’t got the fitness. But I’m really enjoying the hard grounds and I’ve put together a few good games.
"I know that Saturday is going to be a step up for all of us – this is effectively Heineken Cup rugby, if not international-class rugby. I’m really looking forward to my battle with Doug Howlett and I want to get the ball in my hands early on.
"I think I’m in the reckoning for the World Cup, but I know it is a case of me doing what I do well not just one week, but week in, week out."
Ugo Monye experienced some magical moments with the Lions
Monye experienced plenty of hostile venues and testing conditions during his time with the Lions and he’s expecting more of the same this weekend.
Facing Munster on Irish soil is as tough as it gets in the club game, with Tony McGahan’s men unbeaten there this season.
Munster boast a formidable record at their famous Thomond Park stadium, a record that documents Leicester Tigers as the only side in the history of European competition to leave Limerick with a win.
The thousands upon thousands of fanatical members of the Red Army make the larger of Munster’s two homes an unforgettable experience for any away side, many of whom later admit to being beaten long before kick off.
But while Monye is fully aware of the size of the challenge that lies in wait in Limerick’s Lion’s Den, he insists it is one he and his Quins team-mates are ready to embrace.
"Thomond Park is one of the most iconic stadiums in European rugby and with a sea of reds shirts and flags it will almost be like playing for the British & Irish Lions again," added Monye.
"We are a young squad but we are confident in our ability. We had a good result at Leeds last weekend, but we are expecting a massively different challenge at Thomond Park.
"When you talk about European rugby then Munster is the first name that comes to mind. They have a massive understanding of what they are about.
"But we are a side that is learning very quickly and we have got to this stage because we have been consistent. We know that Munster have a great home record in Europe, and haven’t been beaten at home this season, but we will be going to try to change that trend.
"Every away trip is going to be difficult, but we went to Northampton earlier in the season and turned them over. We have confidence in our style of play and when we click we can cause problems for any team.
"Personally, I love going away from home and being booed. That shows the other side is worried about you. You can’t go to a place like Thomond Park and feel intimidated. If you do that you are beaten before you even start.
"We have to embrace the atmosphere, enjoy the occasion and work hard to bring our best game to the table. We have to stick together as a group and inspire each other. It is going to be a huge test for what is still a very young side, but everyone in the squad is buzzing."
Monye is hoping to have reason to celebrate at Thomond Park
Monye’s experience with the Lions two summers ago brought him into close contact with a whole host of Munster stars, many of whom will be on display this weekend and some who will not.
But while the likes of veteran play maker Ronan O’Gara, back-row battler David Wallace and second-row duo Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell may regularly receive the headlines, Monye says it was one of the younger brigade who made the biggest impression on him in South Africa.
Fellow outside back Keith Earls was largely unknown outside of his own country when he was named in Sir Ian McGeechan’s original 37-man party but the then 21-year-old showed a maturity beyond his years in the Republic.
And now, after striking up a good friendship whilst with the world’s most famous touring team, Monye and Earls will come into direct opposition at Thomond Park.
"For me, Keith Earls was the one guy who developed most on that Lions tour, not just as a rugby player but also as a person.
"He was one of the youngest guys in the squad and didn't have that much international experience. It can be quite daunting going into that sort of tour environment, but the confidence that he was exuding by the end of the tour was really quite remarkable.
"Everyone knew he was talented, but he showed a side to his personality which, perhaps, people weren't aware of. He's a tremendous character, very tough mentally, and he plays the game with exactly that attitude.
"He is a very talented player, and a top bloke, and stopping him will be uppermost in our thoughts."
Monye was impressed with Munster's Keith Earls on tour
Unfortunately for Monye and for Quins, Earls is just one of a whole host of star names the Londoners will have to halt if they are to keep their hunt for a third Challenge Cup trophy alive.
Munster’s player roll call is packed with international talent, even if Lions skipper O’Connell is sidelined through injury.
But Quins have a number of big names themselves, with the likes of England duo Nick Easter and Danny Care and former All Black playmaker Nick Evans pulling the strings.
It is the know how and leadership qualities of that particular trio, combined with the youthful enthusiasm of so much of the Quins squad, that gives Monye hope that Limerick will mimic his Lions experience in Johannesburg rather than in Durban.
"We have international class players at 8, 9 and 10 and the battle between Nick Evans and Ronan O’Gara is going to be fantastic. Nick is one of the best players in the world and probably the best player I have ever played with. He does everything so well with a very cool head.
"We like to play with high tempo and pace and we will look to spread the ball. But we also know that when you go away from home you have to be more pragmatic, be accurate and look after the ball.
"We haven’t been in a final for a while and we haven’t won a trophy for seven years. I’ve been at the club for nine years and only won one trophy, so it is nice to be back in this position and it would be a great shame to waste the opportunity.
"It is a one off challenge for us. In many ways it will be like a final, because there will be no tomorrow for the losers."