After the physical and emotional battering taken at the hands of a masterful Saracens outfit at the Aviva Stadium in a 26-10 Champions Cup defeat last Saturday, there may be some relief that this weekend’s opposition is PRO12 bottom club Treviso.
With just two regular- season games remaining, Rassie Erasmus’s team need just two league points to put them beyond the reach of third-placed Scarlets and secure a home semi-final draw.
If they can get home from north-east Italy with a victory on Saturday evening it will make their final fixture, against derby rivals Connacht, a warm-up for the play-offs, free of all the tension and drama that marked last season’s desperation to secure European rugby on the last day.
That in itself represents progress over the last 12 months, as does the valiant run to the Champions Cup semis, but there is a determination that last Saturday’s defeat in Dublin should not come to represent the moment when Munster’s season came crashing down.
That could easily happen given the injuries sustained and the psychological damage inflicted by a dominant and ruthless Saracens side five years further down the evolutionary chain under Mark McCall than the project director of rugby Erasmus inherited last summer.
Munster have not lost back-to-back games all season, always rebounding from setbacks with wins following league defeats in September at home to Cardiff, in October to Leinster at the Aviva, Scarlets at home in March, as well as from December’s European pool loss at Leicester Tigers.
Yet none of those defeats will have been quite as devastating as the torture they were subjected to by Saracens.
From the outside looking in, there was a sense last Saturday that the stalwarts of Munster’s remarkable campaign had hit a physical and mental brick wall every bit as impenetrable as the defensive one thrown up by the English and European champions.
The likes of Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, and Tyler Bleyendaal, who have carried the Munster flame throughout while their test colleagues have been doing their patriotic duty in green jerseys, looked spent as their opposite numbers turned the screw in a one-sided second half.
The fear is that they will be unable to summon the fire needed for one last push towards a first league title since 2011.
Munster supporters will anxiously await today’s injury updates on back-row trio captain Peter O’Mahony (concussion), Tommy O’Donnell (chest/winding), and Jean Deysel (ribs) as well as the latest progress report on Conor Murray’s slow recovery from a nerve issue in the scrum-half’s neck/left shoulder which he suffered in Ireland’s penultimate Six Nations match in Wales on March 10.
Yet if the words of No 8 CJ Stander, who himself was asked to play a full 80 minutes despite making his first appearance following an ankle injury three weeks earlier, and hooker Niall Scannell on Saturday night are any guide, the worries are misplaced.
“This is not the end, but only a chapter in our story,” Stander wrote at the end of a post on Instagram praising the phenomenal support Munster had received from the 50,000-plus crowd.
Scannell, whose own season in red has been of the standout variety and was rewarded with a test debut during the Six Nations, had some ideas of his own about the need to use the disappointment of last Saturday as a platform and an incentive to go and finish the job in the PRO12.
“Hugely. It’s everything,” said the former Ireland U20 skipper.
“You’re trying to keep the two (campaigns) alive for the last few weeks but it’s gone now and we want silverware so badly. As a club, we need silverware and we love this competition and the PRO12. We’re out of this now so we have to be harsh to ourselves today and say they were the better team and we’ve got to go again.
“We have to go again because we don’t want to come out of this season with nothing. There’s been a massive turnaround from us from last season; we’ve worked so hard and I think to come away with nothing would be very tough to take.
“It’s tough to take being out of one competition but we have to really kick on now in the PRO12.”
Guinness PRO12 bosses yesterday confirmed the dates and kick-off times for the semi-finals on May 19 and 20, with league leaders Leinster, already assured of a home draw, pencilled in for the Friday night fixture, kicking off at the RDS Arena at 7.45pm.
Munster or Scarlets will host the second semi the following day, Saturday, May 20, at 6.15pm.