Never mind the wicked, there's no rest for the professional rugby player. With the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 games coming thick and fast this weekend, many of the Irish heroes from an outstanding and highly rewarding Six Nations campaign will be pressed straight back into action.
For once it’s the Springbok contingent of the Stormers, Sharks and Blue Bulls that are a little bit more rested than their Six Nations counterparts. That hasn’t always been the case given their oscillations between a southern hemisphere international season and a European-based club season. With the Grand Slam success already in the rear-view mirror as the business end of the season creeps up on the provinces, season-defining games have appeared on the horizon.
Last Friday night's game at the RDS, against a Stormers side reinforced with a number of returning Springboks, offered Leinster the chance to book their place as top seed in the knockout phase of the URC before completing their campaign on the high veldt against the Lions and Blue Bulls in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
A cursory glance at the respective team sheets suggested Leinster’s unbeaten record this season would come under serious pressure. Trailing by seventeen points after 35 minutes, a side with only three players, in second row pairing Ross Moloney and Jason Jenkins and centre, Ciaran Frawley, in contention to start against Ulster next Saturday, Leinster were in big trouble.
Then again, Ireland’s second row against England was manned by James Ryan and Ryan Baird meaning only one of Moloney or Jenkins is likely to start against Ulster with Baird likely to revert to the back row.
Even then, Baird will be fighting for a slot with Jack Conan, who made a massive contribution off the bench against Scotland and England, unless Caelan Doris is ruled out after failing a HIA against England.
In that event, Conan will slot in alongside Josh Van Der Flier. The only way Frawley is likely to start is if Garry Ringrose is still recovering from the injury he sustained against the Scots.
Leinster’s ability to fight their way back into the contest to earn a draw with basically a second-string side against the reigning URC champions was astonishing. Even the impressive Stormers coach John Dobson admitted to being taken aback by the quality and depth Leinster had on show, specifically highlighting the magnificence of their defence.
With that draw securing top seed in the URC, Leo Cullen can sit back and take a broader view on how to best utilise their foray to South Africa in a few weeks on the back of the Champions Cup game against their near neighbors and, if they win, a home quarter-final against Leicester Tigers or Edinburgh.
Contrast that scenario with the challenges facing Graham Rowntree as a result of Munster’s failure to turn up for the opening half for their crucial URC meeting with Glasgow Warriors last Saturday. That game was crucial on so many fronts, with the opportunity to secure a home URC quarter-final in May and the badly needed financial windfall that accompanies it. I can’t recall Munster ever trailing by 28 points at half-time in any game in Thomond Park.
Coming on the back of their last outing against the Scarlets, when they surrendered a 28-point lead on 50 minutes to a position where they were clinging on at 49-42 with minutes to play, the Glasgow result will send alarm bells ringing in the camp.
While there’s been much-deserved praise for the new attacking template introduced by Mike Prendergast, this season Munster’s defence, under Denis Leamy, has contributed in equal measure to the turnaround in fortunes since the confidence-boosting win over the South African XV in Pairc Ui Chaoimh last November.
Now, from a position of strength, Munster have conceded eleven tries in the last two games. That worrying fall-off in defensive solidity has the capacity to shatter self-belief, especially in light of what’s coming immediately down the track.
By the time you read this, Rowntree’s men will be settling into their balmy Durban surroundings on the Indian Ocean where the Sharks lie in wait. Given the strength of the side they sent to Scarlets last weekend, I was taken aback not only by the result, a 32-20 win for the Welsh, but by the indiscipline and tepid performance of a team loaded with Springboks, five of whom started the 2019 World Cup final.
Perhaps the variance in weather conditions faced by the South African sides last weekend had something to do with it but with Ulster also accounting for the Blue Bulls in Belfast, all three South African Champions Cup contenders failed to win in advance of their Round of 16 outings.
No doubt, the Sharks and Stormers will be far more comfortable on home soil this weekend. The Bulls face a massive challenge away to a Toulouse side that will likely recall up to eight of the French Six Nations team.
With their route to a potential URC final taking a serious blow on the back of the defeat to Glasgow, Munster’s path to European glory is even more fraught. If dealing with the massive Sharks front five isn’t bad enough, their biggest obstacle on Saturday may prove the heat and humidity they will experience. At least they won’t have the complication of playing at altitude.
Should Munster produce one of those traditional Heineken Cup performances on the road and win in Kings Park, in all probability their reward will be a quick turnaround for a quarter-final clash against old adversaries Toulouse in France the following weekend. Should the Bulls pull off a shock and beat the French Top 14 leaders, Munster would find themselves stationed in South Africa for another three weeks.
In their long quest for silverware, that’s why last Saturday’s failure to turn up and compete physically with Glasgow in the opening half could prove catastrophic for Munster’s season. In the context of the vast improvements and gigantic leap taken under new management over the last few months, Saturday’s showing represents a major setback.
In contrast to Cullen, who has the facility to recall practically an entire Irish team for the game against Ulster, Rowntree can only turn to a handful of reliable stalwarts in Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Antoine Frisch to lift spirits with Tadhg Beirne’s continuing absence a major blow.
On the plus side RG Snyman bagged another 20 minutes of action but, after missing so much rugby over the last few years, it’s going to take him a number of games to rediscover the form that made him such a valuable asset to South Africa at the last World Cup.
For Munster to have any chance of competing with a gargantuan Sharks pack that’s likely to include World Cup winners Eben Etzebeth, Bambi Mbonambi and Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, along with fellow Springboks Ox Nche and former Munster prop Thomas Du Toit, they will have to front up in the scrum and be far more physical in the collisions.
For whatever reason, Munster were far too passive last weekend, lacked urgency from the outset, struggled in the set piece and lost the battle for the gain line. Start like that in Durban and it’s curtains, especially if that pack produces quick ball for the likes of the outstanding Lukhanyo Am in midfield and a pair of electric wingers in Makazole Mapimpi and Werner Kok.
Rowntree summed up Munster’s current predicament succinctly, when labelling Saturday’s game in Durban a “defining moment”.
Time has come for Munster to find their best form in a game of real significance. Knockout rugby has arrived. Now is the time to deliver.