Gerry Thornley: Munster’s coffers would benefit from a rare home knockout tie

Province hasn’t hosted a playoff game in Thomond Park in either the URC or Champions Cup since the European tie two seasons ago against Exeter

This is not like Munster at all, and yet in some respects it is very like them. For much of the past fortnight since their Champions Cup quarter-final exit in Northampton, the men in red have let their rivals in blue hog the limelight, albeit Ronan O’Gara did his best to bring a Munster flavour to the quarter-finals. Now, true to type, Munster return to action backed into a corner somewhat of their own making.

On foot of their 24-14 defeat in Franklin’s Gardens a fortnight ago, Graham Rowntree said he was not of a mind to look backwards. This was in regard to winning just one out of four pool games even though this condemned Munster to an away route to the final, via Northampton to, potentially, Pretoria or Croke Park.

Munster had taken some comfort in negotiating a similarly treacherous journey via Glasgow, Dublin and Cape Town to last season’s improbable URC title charge. In fact, in the fallout of their 50-35 Champions Cup Round of 16 loss against the Sharks in Durban (which was altogether more chastening than the final scoreline indicated), the odds were against Munster even making the play-offs.

But, helped by a week’s rest while they watched the Champions Cup quarter-finals from the outside, Munster returned to South Africa and a fortnight later overcome the Stormers, then the reigning champions, by 26-24, who were thus beaten at home for the first time since 2021.


Munster backed this up with a draw away to the Sharks and then, after another week’s respite, inflicted upon Glasgow their first defeat of the season at Scotstoun in the quarter-finals before ending Leinster’s 25-match winning run at the Aviva in the semi-finals. A fortnight later they beat the Stormers again in the final at the DHL Stadium. It was an almighty achievement. Heaven knows what odds they were to win the URC before that win in their penultimate regular season game in Cape Town. Did anyone think to look?

As Tadhg Beirne felt the effects of the bug which swept through their squad and spluttered through his post-match interview in Franklin’s Gardens, the thought occurred that maybe Munster dodged a bullet. Having to play the Bulls in the highveldt of Loftus Versfeld in the Champions Cup quarter-finals as the first of three-game trek to South Africa might have been a worthless and even damaging exercise.

Instead, they again had a week off as the Champions Cup quarter-finals unfolded without them. Tomorrow (Saturday) they face the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld (4.05pm Irish time/5.05pm local, live on RTÉ) with RG Snyman recovered from the illness which sidelined him against Northampton. Calvin Nash and Shane Daly are also fit again and restored. This means Simon Zebo moves to fullback, while Conor Murray, Alex Kendellen and Jack O’Donoghue are also restored in an interesting selection.

Oli Jager also returns from injury to an impactful bench which features Tom Ahern, John Hodnett and Gavin Coombes, who had hitherto started every game this season, in a 6-2 split, with Craig Casey and Joey Carbery providing the backline cover.

Graham Rowntree and co are clearly picking a team designed to counter playing at altitude and provide as much relief as possible when throats start to burn.

Munster sit fourth, two points behind the Bulls in third, in the hunt for a home quarter-final. But the problem for Rowntree’s team is that Jake White, understandably so given the short turnaround before the Champions Cup quarter-finals and travel chaos, has put all his eggs in the URC basket. The Bulls are well placed, for this is their first of four home matches in a row, before their final round game away to the Sharks.

Munster are just four points ahead of the Stormers, and their run-in after this game is the Lions (away), Connacht (home), Edinburgh (away) and Ulster (home). The Stormers host the Ospreys this Saturday and Leinster next week before finishing up against the Dragons (away), Connacht (away) and the Lions (home).

In all of this it’s worth noting that Munster haven’t had a home play-off tie in this competition at Thomond Park since they beat Benetton 15-13 in the 2018-2019 quarter-finals. Their last knockout tie at Thomond Park of any kind was the Champions Cup round of 16 tie two seasons ago against Exeter. A week later they suffered quarter-final heartache in a goalkicking competition against Toulouse at the Aviva because Thomond Park was leased to Ed Sheeran as part of his tour.

Yes, Munster plotted a circuitous route by road and air to last season’s title but, mathematically, their coffers and their chances would benefit from an overdue home tie or two.