If Leicester City had failed to last the pace in the run-in to last season’s English Premier League title race and been caught at the line by Tottenham we would not have thought any less of Claudio Ranieri’s side but praised their sterling effort to mix it with the big boys backed by their billionaire owners.
So too Connacht on their improbable run to the Guinness PRO12 title last season. No billionaire bosses stood in their way, of course, but their rise above clubs and provinces better financed and staffed to even reach the league play-offs in the last campaign would have been a cause for celebration even without the silverware that followed for Pat Lam, John Muldoon and company in Edinburgh that sunny May evening.
Somehow, though, we expect more from Munster, as much as the players and staff at the province do of themselves. For as remarkable as this grief-tinged campaign has been for a team who scraped into the Champions Cup on the last day of the 2015-16 PRO12 season under the late head coach Anthony Foley, then topping a pool they had no right to escape, their place in today’s semi-final at Aviva Stadium is merely another step on the journey.
Back in September incoming director of rugby Rassie Erasmus looked at the draw which had pitted his new charges against French champions Racing 92, English giants Leicester Tigers and fiercely competitive Pro12 rivals Glasgow Warriors and decided Munster were the weak links.
Fast forward seven months and Erasmus’s men may be in Europe’s last four with a Pro12 semi-final berth also assured but they go into today’s showdown with last season’s Champions Cup winners as distinct underdogs all over again.
And regardless of the odds being stacked against them and some 50,000-odd supporters inside a sold-out Aviva stopping the Saracens juggernaut, there is the feeling that it would not be a surprise if Munster could do it.
It stems from the belief coursing through Erasmus and his squad. That just as there was a refusal to accept failure last season, so eloquently articulated by tighthead prop John Ryan elsewhere on these pages in his interview with the Irish Examiner, there is also a determination not merely to pat themselves on the back at reaching the semis for a record 12th time but to kick on some more and use Saracens as a stepping stone to a fifth European final.
All of which makes today’s game a tantalising affair. It may be a meeting of the two best defences in the competition but it is populated with several players selected this week for the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand this summer and both sides are bringing much more than a commitment to stop the other playing.
This is a heavyweight clash, with Saracens so much more than the sum of its parts having long ago jettisoned their reputation as merely the masters of pragmatism and become, as Erasmus described them, the team everybody aspires to be.
When two teams with excellent defensive records meet, however, something has to give, and Saracens captain Brad Barritt said this week: “It’s always fine margins. When you get to play against the best at the pinnacle of European rugby there’s always going to be fine margins it comes down to, often it comes down to discipline, to staying on top and often it comes down to not allowing the emotion and the hype of the game to get to you as a player.”
Munster’s quarter-final opponents Toulouse came to Thomond Park on April 1 brought the same physicality, if not the wit of Saracens and were dealt with by a home side that outgunned them in terms of intensity at the tackle. More importantly, Erasmus’s team found the extra gear needed to pull away in the endgame, turning a tight tussle into a late romp that should give the thousands of followers in the Red Army plenty of belief that if their team play to their potential and stay accurate, intense and error free they can stay with the favourites long enough to turn this game into a contest of equals.
Saracens will not go away like Toulouse did earlier this month but Munster can still put themselves in a position to turn the screw and if they get to that point, backed by 50,000-plus supporters, anything can happen.
The pressure is off, Munster are playing with house money and they have the capacity to upset the odds and turn it into a winning hand.
We should not expect it but try telling Peter O’Mahony and his players it is out of their reach.