Munster wouldn’t be, well, Munster unless they backed themselves into one of their familiar corners at least once in a season. It’s just that it looked as if they’d already done so once already this season, but now they’ve gone and done it a second time.
That’s partly what made last Saturday’s limp first-half display and loss to Glasgow so surprising. Indeed, no one looked more shocked afterwards than Graham Rowntree.
Munster went into the game on the back of 10 wins in their previous 13 matches, the only defeats coming narrowly against Leinster and Toulouse (twice), the respective leaders of the URC and Top 14, and therefore arguably the best two teams in European rugby.
So, no shame there.
Munster went into Saturday’s game in fifth place, just two points behind Glasgow, in their last regular game of the season at home, and thus with the carrot of leapfrogging their sometimes bitter Scottish rivals into the top four; home quarter-final territory.
All of which, made their first-half display so disappointing. The video review would have made for uncomfortable viewing, not least the passivity, as well as the apparent lack of communication and organisation in defence, which left Munster trailing 28-0 at half-time.
This was compounded by a similar lack of urgency and work-rate on their own side of the ball, where Glasgow caused all manner of problems at the breakdown, while to add to a bad day at the office for the front-row around the pitch, they conceded three first-half scrum penalties.
No less than their much-improved attack, Munster’s defence had improved markedly after those understandable early-season teething problems. Indeed, Munster had gone into last Saturday’s game with the second-best defensive record in the URC, behind Leinster.
But there had been warning signs in the second half against the Scarlets three weeks beforehand, when conceding five tries. This means that in two back-to-back halves of rugby, Munster leaked nine tries and 63 points.
True, there was a rally in the second half to earn a bonus point, and push for a second. It gives Munster something to build on this week as a travelling squad prepare to go from Dublin to Durban for next Saturday’s daunting Champions Cup last-16 tie against the Sharks.
To have the experience and big-game mentality of Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray will be a welcome boost, as will Antoine Frisch, but with Tadhg Beirne out for the rest of the season and RG Snyman still working his way back to fitness, it’s nothing like on the scale of the returning cavalry at Leinster.
Nor does it quite compare with the Sharks bringing back Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Bopngi Mbonambi, Makzole Mapimpi, Jaden Hendrikse and Lukhanyo Am.
It’s still been a season of progress for Munster and Rowntree for one has no doubts his team will bounce back in their own inimitable fashion. But even if they were to pull off a stunning win in the heat and humidity of Durban next Saturday, their reward would likely be a quarter-final away to Toulouse, or at a push, at home to the Bulls.
Then, their final two URC regular season games are in South Africa, against the Stormers and the Sharks again. Munster now trail fourth-placed Glasgow by six points, so their hopes of earning a home quarter-final in the URC look remote, especially as Glasgow finish their campaign with home game against Scarlets and Connacht.
Of course, losing five of their first seven matches left Munster no elbow room for a loss like Saturday’s. In all probability, Munster have bid adieu for the season to Thomond Park by the end of March. Last season they did so by mid-April, but they cannot blame Ed Sheeran this time.
Nor are Munster sure of a top-seven finish and with it securing a place in next season’s Champions Cup given Connacht and the Bulls are within striking distance.
Connacht were even further off the pace than Munster thanks in the main to a brutally tough initial itinerary, which left them with five defeats from their first six matches. But they have recovered brilliantly. Last Saturday’s 41-26 win over Edinburgh – their fifth victory in a row, four of which came with a bonus point – was probably the Irish performance of the weekend.
They sit sixth, above three of the South African powerhouses, all the Welsh sides and both Italians. The only teams above them are their three bigger, better-resourced provincial rivals, the reigning champions and a Glasgow side who are bulk suppliers to Team Scotland.
Next Saturday’s Challenge Cup last-16 tie away to Benetton is something of a free hit before they host Cardiff and travel to Glasgow.
Whereas Munster failed to make John Ryan an offer he couldn’t refuse, Ulster moved smartly to offset the loss of Marty Moore with the short-term capture of Jeff Toomaga-Allen and have reaped the benefits.
Last Saturday’s 32-23 win over the Bulls was their fifth in six games and has all but assured them of a home quarter-final, while moving them within two points of the Stormers and a top-two place.
They can perhaps also view next Saturday’s last-16 tie against Leinster at a sold-out Aviva akin to the epic quarter-final between the two four seasons ago, ie as a free hit.
Leinster will view them as the most dangerous eighth-placed finishers in their opposite pool which they could have met. Yet last Friday’s creditable and entertaining draw with the Stormers, when showing more composure from a big deficit, 17-0, than Munster did, ensured Leinster of a top seeding in the URC as well.
Hence, if they meet the Stormers again it will be in Dublin, not Cape Town.
In further contrast to Munster, this all means that Leinster will not play a knock-out match outside Dublin again. There could be up to seven of them, including an overdue Champions Cup final in the Aviva Stadium.
With Bruce Springstein coming to the RDS, the Leinster hierarchy are considering contingency plans for having all their knock-out games in the Aviva Stadium. That would be some run-in but, suddenly, it’s pretty much knock-out rugby from here on in.