Where next for Munster?

The emotions will inevitably be raw when Munster return to work this morning, thoughts of defeat by Toulon still painfully fresh in the minds of players who will feel there should still be a league and Heineken Cup double on their horizons.

Where next for Munster?

Instead, the focus must filter out the could haves and what ifs and narrow in on the RaboDirect Pro12 run-in, which starts with a penultimate regular season game on Saturday afternoon in the unfamiliar surrounds of Edinburgh’s temporary home at Meggetsfield.

Munster have two more games to secure at least second place in the Pro12 and guarantee them a home semi-final draw in the play-offs and knowing their fate is in their own hands will at least be some comfort following the heartache of another European semi-final on foreign soil.

The draw for the last four in the Heineken Cup has never been kind to Munster, their tournament record 11 appearances featuring eight trips away from Ireland.

The raucous atmosphere inside Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Sunday, with Toulon’s fans in the ascendancy despite another laudably strong showing from perhaps around 8,000 of Munster’s faithful supporters will not have fazed the Irish province’s players but there is no doubt about the lift they receive when they are on home soil, and the confidence it gives them to go and play their best rugby.

Munster head coach Rob Penney knows that and after overseeing two successive away trips to the semis during his regrettably short tenure, he feels some better fortune is all that separates this blossoming squad from taking that extra step further, reaching the final and even winning one.

“I think we’ve proved two years in-a-row that we’re certainly capable of competing with them,” Penney said. “All you just need is a little bit of the rub of the green. Like if we had that game at home, at Thomond Park or at the Aviva, I’m sure we would have been talking about different things.”

You can understand the frustration of a man whose chance of lifting Europe’s biggest club prize with Munster had just evaporated, Penney departing for Japan at the end of the season.

A home draw would have undoubtedly helped Munster, as it would any team, but in both those semi-finals, against Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier 12 months ago, and on Sunday in Marseille, his side left France knowing they should have won both games.

Going into the first of those in 2013 with a lack of belief cost Munster against a Clermont side that was hanging on for dear life in the final 10 minutes.

And Toulon would have been there for the taking had Munster not committed so many grievous errors.

Both experiences will stand to Munster as a young squad matures further but it won’t stop the nagging feeling that a first final since 2008 went begging.

“We’ve just got to be more patient, build pressure,” Penney said, “because we’ve shown time and time again that this team’s very capable and it will grow and it will learn and it will be here again.”

Munster, under incoming head coach Anthony Foley, will be itching to do themselves justice in next season’s new incarnation of the premier European club competition, the Rugby Champions Cup.

All the key players, young and experienced, have been re-signed for next season, the majority of the squad will still be in place and there will have to be a few new faces brought in to boost the options at Foley’s disposal.

Munster might not have even a quarter of the budget to match Toulon or Clermont — who have still to win the European Cup, by the way — where transfer dealings are concerned and the ability to spread a wide net and scoop up a shoal of big Southern Hemisphere fish is out of their reach.

Yet the squad still has to be deepened and Munster have to cut their cloth accordingly. There is a need to flash the cash for a midfield general but bringing in the likes of Irish No.8 Robin Copeland, who will join from Cardiff Blues in the summer, is a great example of the type of business the province has to do to augment that odd big signing.

Nor should Copeland’s arrival be seen as spelling the end for James Coughlan, one of Munster’s standout performers, yet again, on Sunday, but as an enhancement of the squad, giving Foley the ability to have two battle-hardened No. 8s to call on as well as the young and improving Paddy Butler, a reserve in Toulon.

Munster need that sort of depth in every position because at the moment it can’t afford to be without the likes of Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony in the biggest matches, however well Dave Foley and CJ Stander played.

Foley will see no need to reach for the panic button. He has helped the development of a squad that has come on in leaps and bounds in the past two seasons and will take over the reins of a still developing and maturing group of players with massive potential to take more giant leaps forward.

He will also remember it took his generation of Munster players six trips to the semis and two final defeats before he finally lifted the Heineken Cup.

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