Here are five things the Irish provinces learned from the inaugural Champions Cup
Published 21/04/2015 | 02:30
After the anguish of defeat, the cold reality beckons for Leinster and the sport in Ireland.
The scattered debris of their European campaign has been dissected by their faithful to the nth degree; unfortunately, their team has no time to wallow in defeat.
They must re-focus on a Pro12 campaign which has paled in comparison to the province's ultimately doomed heroics on the European stage against the two-time Toulon champions.
Few Leinster supporters would have swapped the romantic possibility of a European semi-final for its league equivalent; realism dictates that a return to the final stages of the Champions Cup may be more difficult than ever next term.
Munster and Ulster were dumped out of the Champions Cup prematurely this season but that has allowed them to re-focus their efforts on the Pro12; meritocracy now allows them both a tilt at a top seeding and a much more favourable pool draw.
In contrast, Leinster could, conceivably, slip to third or even fourth seeds; this Friday's trip to Belfast will go a long way to deciding their league fate but also, perhaps, their short-term ambitions in Europe.
The ramifications for Irish rugby remain unclear.
The international team remains champions of Europe for a second successive year despite the fact that, for two successive seasons, no Irish club has made it to the final of European club competition.
So, here are five things the Irish provinces learned from this season's Champions Cup campaign.
1 LEAGUE SEEDING SPURS EUROPEAN GROWTH
If, as now seems more likely than not, Ulster and Munster qualify for the Pro12 play-offs and a shot at winning a final in Belfast, at least one will be guaranteed a top seeding next season.
And if it is an all-Irish final, the loser will have a 33pc chance of claiming a top seed berth too; offered such a qualification path, both sides would fancy their chances of reaching the knockout stages.
Leinster will be handicapped by their appalling form in the league while the loss of international players, coupled with the inability of the lesser lights to step up, looks likely to damage their immediate prospects in Europe.
Given that they nearly made a hames of qualifying from a relatively easy pool this season - Munster had two of this year's semi-finalists; Ulster the two-time champions - their chances of returning to the last four appear slim.
2 PERFECT TENS NEEDED
Ireland's list of European Cup winners housed world-class talents in the out-half jersey who knew how to get their team over the line - Humphreys, O'Gara and Sexton.
None of the Irish teams this season possessed the equivalent, albeit Paddy Jackson's growth in an Ulster side playing good attacking rugby bodes well. For Munster and Leinster, inconsistency from their tens proved fatal.
Suffice to say that were Jonathan Sexton in blue last Sunday, we would be awaiting a Clermont-Leinster final.
3 MONEY A FACTOR BUT NOT A PRIME ISSUE
When Ireland dominated Europe from 2006 to 2012, few in this country quibbled about finances.
Still, provinces played the poor mouth but often neglected to mention that, aside from their own playing budgets, it is the IRFU who stump up the really big bucks for the big names.
The repatriation of Johnny Sexton indicates the manner in which private investment can be deployed to augment player contracts; Leinster and the IRFU, for the sake of a measly amount of money, should never have allowed him to leave in the first place.
4 COHERENT COACHING REQUIRED
All three leading provinces may benefit from clearer direction next season.
Ulster started this campaign in disarray and their European campaign suffered; they will have another coaching change at the top of the food chain next season with Les Kiss arriving but should cope better.
Leinster struggled to integrate a new forwards coach this season while the hurried appointment of an all-local group in Munster were out-thought in Europe.
5 RECRUITMENT NEEDS TO BE SHARP
This has been Leinster's biggest failing; Jonathan Sexton was irreplaceable but the player chosen by Joe Schmidt and Leinster to replace him was ultimately not fit for purpose when it came the white heat of a European semi-final.
Taken as a whole, Leinster's recruitment policy has faltered in recent times and they have struggled to fill the gaps bequeathed by great players.
That Leinster have been forced into repatriating two of their legends also reflects poorly on the Academy prospects who have failed to advance their careers.