Alan Quinlan: Missing out on Champions Cup would mark an unbearable fall from grace
Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30
Eight years after we ended our season as Heineken Cup champions, there is a real danger that Munster may end this year out of the Champions Cup qualification places.
Can you imagine how big a blow that would be? Commercially, it would hurt in the pocket and in terms of recruitment, can you imagine any top players wanting to come to a side plying their trade in the Challenge Cup?
As a club, Munster need to be competing for the biggest trophies out there and while it is bad enough that they haven't reached the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup in the last couple of years, it would be a whole lot worse if they failed to even make it to the starting line for the 2016-17 competition.
No one - including me - really thinks that will happen. But it might. With three games remaining, only a point separates them from seventh-place Edinburgh and from sporting devastation.
Further back lie the Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys, who, in all probability, have too much ground to make up. But Edinburgh don't - and when they travel to Cork at the end of this month, they'll know it will be for a game that could very easily end up as the defining one of this campaign.
You hope it won't be. You hope Munster will lick their wounds from Saturday's defeat, absorb the lessons and bounce back against Connacht in two weeks' time.
Then again, we have been talking about them bouncing back for quite a while now. The time to deliver is now.
And they still can. Their season finishes with that trip to the Sportsground and then home games against Edinburgh and Scarlets, and even though they shadow-boxed Leinster for much of Saturday's game, I have a feeling that if they can burst out of the traps from the word go in those concluding Pro12 matches, then they can certainly finish the season with two wins, possibly with three.
If it is the latter, then we won't just be talking about Champions Cup qualification but also an entry into the play-offs, which would turn a poor season into an acceptable one.
Once, qualifying for play-offs and having a place in the Champions Cup was the minimum required. Now, Munster's fans face an anxious wait to see if they will get either.
If there is one positive out of all of this, it is that the introduction of this qualification format for the Champions Cup has really injected life into the Pro12. All of a sudden, every game - and every point - counts.
Which was why Munster should have taken the chance to kick a penalty in the dying moments of Saturday's match at the Aviva.
Had they done so, and had Ian Keatley delivered, then a draw would have ensued, two points - rather than one - would have been chalked up on the board and from a psychological perspective, the journey home would have been considerably more positive.
But the wrong decision was made and, in time, it could come back to haunt them.
As for Leinster, they won't particularly care. Why should they? Saturday's win leaves them in pole position to claim a home semi-final when the play-offs come around - that position will be strengthened further because I think they will beat Edinburgh, thereby doing Munster a favour.
They nearly did them a favour on Saturday, too. Despite being in control of the game with six minutes remaining, they nearly gave it away in the concluding moments.
In a poor quality game, where the two sides largely cancelled one another out, and where the low intensity served as a disappointment not just to me, but - in all likelihood - to the 43,000 fans who paid in to see it, Leinster struggled yet again to make clean line-breaks.
And while they did score a try - finally, after failing to do so against Glasgow and Connacht - when they sit down for their Monday morning review of the game, they will quickly realise that they have to get a cutting edge if they are going to end the season as Pro12 champions, because - make no mistake - what we saw from their attack on Saturday will not be good enough to win a semi-final or final.
Yet there were positives. Their defence - like Munster's - was excellent. Some of their key performers; Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock and Johnny Sexton, played exceptionally well. They can be very pleased with the outcome, if not the performance. Their lineout was poor. Their kicking game was just as bad.
Munster, meanwhile, must be regretting the decision to take off Johnny Holland midway through the second half.
They lost cohesion and flow after that moment and the last 20 minutes of the game was characterised by indecision and too many one-off runners going down blind alleys.
And yet they - like Leinster - will be looking forward. With three games left, both sides are eyeing a play-off spot - including sixth-placed Munster, even though they are fully aware that their run-in is tough and even though they know that Connacht and Leinster have opened up a large gap on them, and that all the momentum is with Glasgow, in fourth.
Nonetheless, Anthony Foley will be targeting a minimum of 12 points from their final three games. Can you trust them to reach that target? Not yet. But they will do enough to make the top six.