There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Munster made an art form of stealing the limelight from their provincial neighbours. Whatever heroics Leinster or Ulster pulled off in Europe on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon, Munster would rock up the following day and produce something even more stunning.
In those days, Connacht didn’t even enter the equation, ploughing a lone battle in the Challenge Cup while their more prosperous provincial colleagues accounted for the best the English and French could throw at them.
While the landscape has changed immeasurably across European club rugby as Saracens and Racing 92 guarantee that a new name will enter the roll of honour when they contest next Saturday’s Champions Cup final at Lyon, it has also changed domestically with Connacht the new darlings of the Irish rugby public as they prepare for a Guinness Pro12 semi-final for the first time ever.
The fact that Leinster and Ulster contest the first of those semi-finals at the RDS has not only insured an Irish presence in the final at Murrayfield, but it has left Munster on the outside looking in as the remaining Irish provinces extend their season to the penultimate day of competitive action at the very least with the prospect of an all-Irish final still a distinct possibility.
Based on their form since the completion of the Six Nations championship, Glasgow Warriors emerged as clear favourites to retain their Pro12 crown, won in deserved circumstances against Munster in last season’s final hosted in Belfast.
A win or a draw against Connacht last Saturday would have secured a home semi-final for Glasgow, with the carrot of a final only an hour up the road in Edinburgh. Connacht had other ideas however and, once again, recorded a spectacular win. The big question now is can they repeat the dose when Glasgow return to the Sportsground on Saturday week?
That Connacht prevailed without first choice props Denis Buckley and Nathan White who were both out injured and the subsequent loss during the game of their direct replacements Ronan Loughney, Finley Bealham, and Rodney Ah You says everything about their character.
While it helped their cause that Glasgow were reduced to seven forwards when their tight head Silu Puafisi was sent off after 50 minutes for reckless use of the head, Connacht still refused to go to uncontested scrum with regular hooker Tom McCartney doing a decent job when filling in at loose head prop. That typified the type of character, commitment, and grit that has got Connacht where they are this season.
With just one defeat in Galway all season, Connacht will now believe they can achieve the impossible with a Champions Cup place, secured on merit, already in the bag. Pat Lam’s men are in bonus territory at this stage and, in the absence of any real pressure, that makes them dangerous. To make the final would be a magnificent achievement and playing against an Irish side in the decider would only serve to add more spice.
The fact that the other two Irish provinces are also contesting for silverware only serves to highlight further what a challenging period it has proved for Munster but, at least, they finished a highly pressurised few months on a positive. The final act of a difficult season saw the players embrace as they savoured a huge sense of relief and a degree of satisfaction at a job well done over the last two weekends of competitive action.
Munster are unaccustomed to seeing an end to their season in the first week of May, without a competitive semi-final in either domestic or European competition to savour. Given the pressure this squad was under over the last few weeks, with the real possibility of being the first Munster side ever to enter a new season without competing in Europe’s premier competition really served to focus the mind.
Fortune favoured them to the extent that both of the remaining Guinness Pro12 games that simply had to be won were at home. That offered a distinct advantage over their rivals for the remaining slot but the manner with which the players stepped up to the mark augurs well for the future.
To return of a maximum 10 points with two try bonus points secured in those wins over Edinburgh and Scarlets reflects well on the senior players who grabbed the initiative in training over the last few weeks.
The book is now closed on that and one suspects that the landscape will have changed dramatically by the time this group of players head into their pre season friendlies next August with a new man in Rassie Erasmus at the helm and a state of the art training facility at UL on hand to meet their every need.
Lost a little in the clamour to apportion blame for Munster’s difficulties all year is the emergence of some promising young talent in the most trying of circumstances.
Rory Scannell only graduates from the Munster academy ranks this month but has been a model of consistency all season culminating with yet another very positive performance last Saturday.
His brother Niall has also added greatly to Munster’s depth at hooker and his battle with Mike Sherry and Duncan Casey for the No 2 jersey over the next few seasons augurs well. With little or no rugby played for over a year until returning to the ranks of the AIL with Cork Constitution against UCD back in late February, Jonny Holland’s form at out half has also been hugely encouraging.
Jack O’Donoghue, Ronan O’Mahony and Darren Sweetnam have also made great strides.
All this against a background of losing their highly influential captain Peter O’Mahony for the entire season along with other experienced international influences in Felix Jones, BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan, Tommy O’Donnell, and Mark Chisholm for prolonged periods, not to mention the departure of Paul O’Connell. For that, Anthony Foley deserves credit.
With Erasmus due in Limerick for a few days later this month, hopefully he can clarify the make up of his coaching team before the players disperses for a well deserved summer break and everyone can start on the same page when pre-season training commences in July.
By then the enormity of the next challenge will already have come into focus. The reality is that by qualifying in sixth place from this season’s Pro12, Munster will be in the third tier of the Champions Cup draw which guarantees a very difficult pool and another dogfight in attempting to avoid not making the knockout phase of Europe for a third year in a row.
Right now, however, Munster will be more than happy to take their chances and hope that Erasmus can attract some new faces to add some fresh impetus and experience to the squad. After his protracted absence, O’Mahony will feel like a new signing next August while more quality and experience is badly needed at tight head prop, in the back row and at out-half.
Over to you Rassie...