Results over the weekend ended Munster’s slim chances of qualifying before a turnstile opened in Thomond Park on Sunday.
It felt fitting enough. Sneaking into the quarter-finals off the back of a Rube Goldberg-style series of results in Sale, Lyon and Barnet just isn’t where Munster ever aspire to be. They’d have taken it, sure, but it would have felt like winning a race just because everyone ahead of you just started upper-cutting themselves ahead of the finish line.
Nice? Sure. Funny? Certainly. But not what a club that wants to be reliably challenging for this trophy at the top end of competition should be doing.
With that in mind, Sunday's game became as much about the future as it was about beating an Ospreys side that could finally boast North, Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones in their ranks. A win was important, not because of the match points on offer, but as a harbinger of what might be to come, both this season and next.
So when you wonder why 19,891 people got up early on a cold Sunday morning, hop in the car to Limerick and click through the turnstiles of Thomond Park for what was essentially a dead rubber, you’ve got to look at the newer names in the selection. The inclusion of Fineen Wycherley, Calvin Nash, Jack O’Sullivan, Ben Healy, and Craig Casey in the matchday squad was as much of a draw as the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and CJ Stander.
Regardless of what happened on the field against Ospreys, this game had a feeling of being less about today and much more about the big days to come in the future.
The first half was a mixed bag and, in some ways, an illustration of where Munster need to improve in the grander scheme of things over the next few months. Munster struggled to get any kind of offensive platform in the middle of the field against a big Ospreys pack. Say what you want about the Ospreys this season - and you can say a lot - but they had a number of starting Welsh internationals and guys who are comfortably test-standard in their pack and Munster played a lot of their phase play on the back foot as a result.
Munster’s lineout did the job to finally haul the Ospreys back in the second quarter, as Murray, Hanrahan, and Arnold managed to catch the Swansea region out in midfield to set up the big boys for close-range finishes.
The second half saw Munster comfortably pull away for a 33-6 win with the young bucks playing a big part in sending the Thomond Park crowd home down the Shelbourne Road and Sexton Street reasonably happy with a buzz over what might yet be this season and next
The focus now will have to be the PRO14. A home semi-final is absolutely doable and a win there sets up a final appearance where anything can happen. The rumours swirling around about who might be playing in red next season are great but they alone, if confirmed, won’t be enough. Munster will need the young guns who featured here and guys like Knox, Daly, Coombes, and others to start really pushing on.
Ultimately, Munster need the rarest thing there is in professional sport - time.
If the first half of this season has shown anything, it’s that there is still a gap between Munster and the very best sides in Europe. If anything, it’s been a greatest hits album of the semi-final opposition that Munster couldn’t quite overcome but it has shown where Munster need to improve.
I think the gap has closed on previous seasons but not enough to realistically expect Munster to beat these top sides full strength v. full strength right now. The team that ascended from the troublesome 2015/2016 season has taken Munster to three semi-finals in four seasons but it’s clear they need something else added to the mix in the tight five, midfield and elsewhere to break that glass ceiling.
That was true in 2017 against Saracens in the Aviva. It was true against Racing in Bordeaux 2018 and it was true this past April against Saracens, financially doped up to the eyeballs as they were and are. It’s been true against Leinster in the PRO14 for two seasons running.
What makes this season different? I think it’s the relative readiness of quality younger players like Wycherley, Casey, O’Sullivan, Knox, Daly, and others to make that step up. They have to, to be frank.
The coaching additions of Larkham and Rowntree will be a factor, you’d imagine, but even the best coaches need time on the training pitch and cohesion week to week to build whatever they’re trying to build. That coaching disruption combined with Munster’s compressed season against top opposition post World Cup, injuries to key players like Kilcoyne, Carbery, and Beirne, and an inability to field a consistent team for any longer than two weekends hasn’t helped either but they won’t matter as it stands.
Munster haven’t won a trophy since 2011 and the aim of everyone involved with the club in the stands, in the boardroom, and on the pitch is to make that happen. Going out of Europe in January isn’t part of that plan but if the rest of this season is used productively, it can be a step back that pays dividends in the seasons to come.
Ultimately, while this European season has been a failure, it doesn’t write off the rest of the PRO14 season. The next time Munster take the field, it’ll be against Zebre in February and the young players who made a name for themselves in the first half of the season will be tasked with pushing Munster back to the top of Conference B and keeping them there.
Munster need time and patience, but with no European rugby for the rest of the season and some young players making waves, they may well get it.