After a brief respite, due to the unwelcome failure to qualify for the quarter-final phase of Champions Cup action, Munster and Ulster recommence their quest to join Leinster and Connacht in securing one of the seven slots available to the Guinness Pro 12 sides in next season’s tournament.
Connacht’s harrowing one-point defeat to Grenoble in their Challenge Cup quarter final last Saturday night, after delivering yet another brilliant display of attacking rugby, means the semi-finals of this season’s European fare becomes an Irish-free zone.
Ironically Newport Gwent Dragons, currently languishing in 10th position, are the sole representatives of the Guinness Pro 12 across the two European tournaments and one fears for them in their Challenge Cup semi-final, away to a Montpellier side packed to the brim with overseas imports.
If the newly-constructed meritocracy that was introduced to the top tier of European competition two seasons ago has added greatly to the competitiveness of the Guinness Pro 12, the tournament still leaves a lot to be desired. One of the biggest problems surrounds the quality of officiating, with the recent, full blooded derby between Leinster and Munster offering a stunning case in point.
Welsh referee Ian Davies and his Irish assistants David Wilkinson and Mark Patton had a very poor day at the office. The number of key incidents missed by the officials was incredible. In the 10 minutes before half-time alone, three went unpunished. On 32 minutes, Keith Earls deliberately slapped a ball forward while contesting in the air. It should have been a penalty to Leinster but Davies called a scrum for a knock on.
Seven minutes later, James Cronin should have been penalised for slowing Leinster ball while clearly off his feet; a definite penalty. Then, on the stroke of half time, Simon Zebo prevented a potential Leinster try by deliberately slapping the ball into touch within touching distance of assistant referee Patton. You are looking at a potential penalty try and a yellow card for Zebo here. Given that Robin Copeland was already in the bin, the implications for Munster were huge. The incident wasn’t even referred to the TMO. Late in the second half, Isa Nacewa chipped the ball into the hands of Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath who was at least three metres off side, yet that too went unpunished. I could go on and on.
Meanwhile, only a few hours earlier on the back pitch at rugby headquarters, international referee George Clancy added greatly to the enjoyment of the AIL Division 1A clash between Lansdowne and Cork Constitution, to the point where a number of the players commented after the game what a difference it made to have a top-quality official controlling matters at that level.
The Pro 12 is no different, but week after week, the fare on offer is being compromised by falling standards of officialdom. While the system that recruits and develops referees in this country is widely seen as one of the best in the world, the Welsh and Scottish union’s are falling behind on this issue, and that is having an adverse effect on our domestic league.
Anthony Foley has already highlighted several refereeing issues that have influenced the outcome of games in Munster’s campaign this season and has received a sympathetic ear from those in authority.
Nobody likes having a go at referees and I don’t enjoy laying the blame for defeat at the door of the officials, but in a results-driven business, it is vital the right calls are made consistently.
Unquestionably, standards have fallen on that front in the Pro 12 this season.
Just like the referees, players also need to make the right calls at the right time to effect the outcome of closely fought contests. I wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, if CJ Stander, Dave Kilcoyne, and others on the Munster side would, 10 days on, change their approach in the closing minutes of that Leinster game, when a draw was on offer at the death.
In my opinion, a league is a marathon not a sprint and every point accumulated is vital, especially when the stakes are as high as qualification for the top-four play offs and the Champions Cup. A financially attractive home semi-final was probably out of Munster’s grasp even in the event of beating Leinster, but their chances of even finishing in fourth position now look extremely unlikely. Apart from avoiding back-to-back defeats to Leinster this season, a draw at the Aviva Stadium would have secured Munster an additional point and denied Leinster two points.
Unfortunately, Kilcoyne had his Chris Robshaw moment when taking that quick tap penalty with time running out, but, in truth, Munster should have opted for three points from a penalty opportunity to level the game several several minutes earlier.
With three testing games to come against Connacht, Edinburgh, and Scarlets, Munster have it all to do.
Connacht’s heartbreaking defeat last weekend will make it even more difficult for Munster now, as the Westerners are guaranteed a rousing reception and a fanatical backing from the ever growing hordes that fill the Sportsground these days. Had they won in Grenoble, they might have found it more difficult to raise their game again, but they will be hurting after that defeat.
Connacht have never won silverware and, after the season they have enjoyed to date, will go bald headed for the Pro 12, now that their European adventure is consigned to history for another season. With qualification for next season’s Champions Cup all but assured, they can chase an even bigger dream.
If Munster needed convincing that they are not that far off the mark, then the fact Leicester Tigers have made it all the way to the Champions Cup semi-final should offer hope for the future. While they lost both pool games to the Tigers this season, they handed the contest in Thomond Park to them on a plate with the concession of two ridiculous tries in the key minutes before half-time.
A brilliant cover tackle on Francis Saili by Tigers full back Telusa Veainu after he ran the length of the field turned the game after Munster produced their best display of the season at Welford Road.
To see practically the same Leicester outfit put six tries on another of Munster’s pool opponents, Stade Francais, highlights again that their European pool this time out was eminently negotiable.
That is all water under the bridge, but the pressure is on to deliver against a Connacht side that has won the hearts and minds of rugby fans all over the country. Having already lost to Pat Lam’s men in Thomond Park this season, Munster would help their cause immeasurably by winning this one and hope that Leinster can do them a favour by beating Edinburgh in the RDS.
Despite its shortcomings this season, what with having to compete parallel with the World Cup and the Six Nations on occasions, the Guinness Pro 12 still has the capacity to capture the imagination over the next few weeks.
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