The European debuts came thick and fast as Munster said their farewells to the Heineken Champions Cup for another season and made a determined change of direction towards the Guinness PRO14.
Qualification for the quarter-finals had been denied them long before their lunchtime kick-off at Thomond Park, the victories in other pools on Saturday for Ulster, Northampton Saints and Glasgow Warriors as unpalatable as the breakfast servings of pre-match pasta they woke up to yesterday, but just as hard to swallow would have been the thought of not going out from this competition with a bonus-point victory over the Pool 4 minnows.
Whatever troubles Munster encountered in the pool of death against Saracens and Racing 92 in rounds two through five, the bookends against Ospreys have at least given some solace during this season’s European adventure. One of the three best runners-up berths eligible for the last eight proved beyond Johann van Graan’s squad but the Welsh region allowed them to channel their disappointments into a positive.
Eight senior players will depart for Ireland camp in a bid to further salve provincial wounds as a block of games that as well as losses in London and Paris also included PRO14 defeats to Irish rivals Leinster and Ulster comes to a merciful end.
The players left behind, meanwhile will be tasked with putting Munster back on top of Conference A with wins in the four games to be played during the Six Nations. After two semi-final defeats to Leinster in Dublin, van Graan has demanded an easier route to the PRO14 final this season and the only way to secure that is to win the conference and book a home semi.
At least there will be no distractions this time around.
“The previous two years we had the European quarter-final to look forward to and obviously that’s not there this year so our sole focus will be on the PRO14,” head coach van Graan said yesterday.
“That means that you’ve got three extra weeks to prepare without a quarter-final, semi-final and final week (in Europe) so we’ll have to use that to our advantage and make sure we prepare pretty well towards the back end of the season. Come quarter-final and semi-final time, we’ve got to make sure that we are there and use the opportunities that are presented.
“But, like we learned the previous two years, if you don’t get a home semi-final you’ve got to go down to Dublin and play Leinster in a semi-final, so our first goal will be to qualify for Europe and try to get a home semi-final but we’ve got a lot of work to do before then.”
With the rump of his first team away with Andy Farrell on Six Nations duty, the responsibility falls on both the overlooked seniors and the younger generation, both of which groups contributed heartily to this five-try to nil round-six victory.
CJ Stander and Conor Murray may well go into Ireland camp feeling they have played their best games in a long time, the No.8 scoring the first and final tries of the match, Murray the middle one in a man of the match performance. But it was the likes of full-back Mike Haley, hooker Niall Scannell and tighthead Stephen Archer who also acquitted themselves admirably and will need to keep doing so when their brethren are knee-deep in the Six Nations.
They will need to provide leadership to those younger players, five of whom enjoyed European firsts in the Limerick sunshine yesterday, with lock Fineen Wycherley making his maiden start, and debuts for starting wing Calvin Nash, and replacements Jack O’Sullivan, and fly-half Ben Healy. The pick was arguably Craig Casey, the diminutive scrum-half given three minutes of a Champions Cup debut in the 39-22 loss at Racing seven days earlier.
With the game already lost and the clock ticking, it had been merely a taste of the big time at La Défense Arena.
Back on home turf at Thomond Park and on much earlier in the proceedings, initially as a Head Injury Assessment replacement for Conor Murray in the 57th minute, Casey wasted little time in making his mark. His first touch was to put the ball in at a five-metre scrum. Seconds later the 20-year-old was picking the ball from the base, showing it to flanker Dan Lydiate and then sending the Wales back-rower the wrong way as he darted between him and the rest of the Ospreys pack to grab his first senior try.
It was a joy to watch, a ray of light on a sombre afternoon and though van Graan name-checked all his other scrum-halves, it is clear Casey is the front-runner to steer the province through the next block of games.
“He’s come on pretty well,” van Graan conceded. “When I came to Munster he was injured for quite a long time. Then he had a good Six Nations with the U20s and a really good World Cup.
“We’re blessed with pretty good nines. He kept working in training. He’s a doer and he’s somebody who wants to improve his game. I thought we managed his game-time pretty well over the last couple of months and we’re really excited by what he brought today.
“He’s a small man and he’s going to play a big part in Munster’s future. It’s great to get him on the pitch and really happy for him scoring that try.”
The Munster boss was asked whether Casey was ready to steer the team.
“Yeah, most definitely,” came the reply. “We’ve got Nick McCarthy, Neil Cronin and Jack Stafford as well and the squad is really important.
“You saw this week, one or two freaky things happen and guys are out of the team and the next guy steps in. Someone like Calvin Nash, Ben Healy, Fineen, it’s the next man up and I thought specifically Craig did that pretty well today.
“So very confident about the young lads in the squad and a lot of disappointed guys not to be selected this week because everybody wants to have a go.
“It’s been such a long block, we’ve got a two-week break now and then we’ll reconvene for two weeks of training and then we’ve got the Kings at home, Zebre away and Scarlets at home and then a three-week break until we play Benetton at home and then the national guys will come back.
“So there’s still five months left in the season and still such a long way to go.”
M Haley (B Healy, 68); A Conway (D Goggin, 11), S Arnold, R Scannell, C Nash; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray (C Casey, 57 - HIA; Healy 64-67 - HIA; Casey, 73); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 66), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 67), S Archer (J Ryan, 53); F Wycherley, B Holland (A Botha, 66); P O’Mahony - captain (J O’Sullivan, 59), J O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.
C Evans; H Dirksen (L Klim, 79), G North, D Evans (S Cross, 56), L Morgan; L Price, S Venter; N Smith (D Marfo, 67), S Otten (D Lake, 67), M Fia (G Gajion, 56); B Davies, A W Jones (L Ashley, 79); D Lydiate, J Tipuric - captain (O Cracknell, 40-43 - HIA), D Baker (O Cracknell, 54).
Mathieu Raynal (France)