The positive spin on all things Irish rugby continued unabated this weekend with all three Irish provinces sitting pretty on top of their respective Champions Cup pools heading into the final week of action, despite the fact that Munster came up just short in a captivating game against Racing 92 in Paris.
Leinster have not only qualified for the knockout stage of Europe with a game to spare but, of even more significance, already have a home quarter-final in the bag.
Ulster too deserve massive credit for keeping their season alive with a great win over La Rochelle with Harlequins’ last ditch victory over Wasps aiding their cause hugely.
Once again, next weekend’s final round of Champions Cup action will prove fascinating to watch with, incredibly, Leinster the only side guaranteed their slot in the quarter-finals with one series of games remaining.
For Munster, it could have been so much better, one more try would not only have won this game but would also have yielded a five-point haul and the probability of a home quarter-final with a win over Castres next Sunday.
Instead, they left for home late last night with heads slightly bowed but, crucially, with a losing bonus point and their European destiny still in their hands.
It could have been so much more after a massively courageous performance that saw Munster come from behind on two occasions to lead by a point with just four minutes remaining.
The fact that they didn’t prevail came down to a basic error at the restart, an area that was less than perfect from a Munster perspective throughout this contest.
The golden rule always has the second caller overruling the first, with the man coming forward onto the ball in a better position to claim possession.
In this instance, Jack O’Donoghue and Ian Keatley got their wires crossed, under pressure from the irrepressible Donnacha Ryan, and conceded the vital penalty that cost them the game.
And what a game it was.
The ageless Rolling Stones may have provided the entertainment when this new age stadium was opened last October but I doubt they provided anything as gripping as this clash proved to be.
The breathtaking U Arena is everything it was cracked up to be, even if it does pose some unusual problems for the players, not least the issue of dealing with the high ball with the bright floodlights reflecting off the domed roof.
Given Munster’s penchant for launching an aerial bombardment on the opposition’s back three, that particular challenge was always likely to work in the visitor’s favour which proved the case.
By way of contrast, Munster’s back three were imperious under the high ball while both Keith Earls and Andrew Conway created all kinds of problems in the wide channels when in possession.
Munster will look back with regret that nine points from the boot of Conor Murray and Ian Keatley were left behind.
That along with two potential try scoring opportunities when Conway failed to link with Earls just before half-time while Earls couldn’t find Murray after yet another electric break from the flying Limerick winger who was outstanding throughout.
The Racing back five was selected with the specific intention of curtailing Munster’s line out with all three of their back rowers in Leone Nakarawa, Yannick Nyanga and Wenceslas Lauret very capable operators out of touch and former Munster stalwart Ryan was poised to wreak havoc with his valuable inside knowledge of the visitors.
What proved even more effective was the fact that Racing restricted Munster to just three line outs in the opening half. Denied their favoured platform to play off of, Munster struggled for long periods in that opening half to impose themselves in the contest.
Playing in such unfamiliar and unusual surroundings, it was inevitable Munster would struggle to cope early on and that was certainly the case when Racing flew out of the blocks.
Ten points to the good after only eight minutes, Munster were left in no doubt as to the enormity of the task ahead.
It didn’t help that the disciplinary issues that have negatively impacted on Munster’s performances lately continued to such a degree they were conceding penalties at a ratio of two to one in that opening half witheight on the board at the half way mark.
To finish up with only 11 each on the final whistle represented a big improvement.
That said after being on the back foot for the entire opening quarter and punished ruthlessly on the scoreboard, Munster finally arrived at the point where their continuity game got up and running and Murray was presented with the type of quality ball he thrives on.
Munster’s scrum also enjoyed an edge at that stage and set in motion a series of well choreographed recycles that resulted in a morale boosting try under the sticks for the hard working Jean Kleyn.
The big problem however, having worked tirelessly to reach the point where they had Racing firmly on the back foot, Munster left a series of point scoring opportunities behind them.
Despite this defeat, Munster have so many positives to focus on, not least their ever increasing potency in attack and their ability to strike fear into their opponents from broken play.
Five clean line breaks and 12 defenders beaten along with a new found energy to get the ball into the hands of Simon Zebo, Earls and Conway as often as possible marks a significant improvement in attack from where they were last season.
Ironic too, given Munster’s increasing creativity offset plays, that the killer try should come from a brilliantly worked line out which put Nyanga into possession and space from the scrum half position before releasing to Dimitri Szarzewski to deny Munster a fourth win over the Parisians in this tournament in 12 months.
The fact that Castres picked up five points in their facile win over Leicester Tigers yesterday also means that they travel to Limerick next Sunday with the opportunity to top the pool.
Should Castres and Munster both finish on 16 points, which will happen if Munster lose without a bonus point, then Castres will progress on the basis of the better head to head.
For Munster the equation is simple, win the game and progress to the knock out phase for a record 17th occasion.
As always, Munster like to reserve their best ‘til last with another epic, round six pool encounter awaiting in Thomond Park next weekend. Vital then that, in the words of Johann van Graan, they reverse the dial to zero and start again. Still all to play for.
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