Thursday 29 June 2017

Sink or swim for Munster - no more second chances

Munster head coach Anthony Foley.
Munster head coach Anthony Foley.
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Anthony Foley's unhappy tenure had already endured its first crisis back in September 2014 when Edinburgh ransacked a half-empty Thomond Park on the opening night of his first season with an unlikely one-point win.

Little did we know then that, from the leaked email controversy on, the former captain's reign would lurch from one bit of bad news to another until we reached a point where the province are now on the brink of missing out on the Champions Cup next season.

After that game, Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons spoke in reverential tones about the Munster side he had just beaten and the venue at which it had taken place, disputing the idea that their mystique had been damaged in the years since their last Heineken Cup triumph in 2008.

Fast-forward 20 months and the wily former Ulster coach brings his team back - this time to Cork's Irish Independent Park - with a shot at qualifying for the top European competition at Munster's expense.

Immediately after last Friday night, when his side secured the losing bonus point against Leinster that edged them ahead of Munster by virtue of their superior points difference, Solomons was again talking up the difficulty of winning in the southern province.

But, since Edinburgh's aforementioned 14-13 victory last season, the Ospreys have won twice at Munster, while Clermont, Leinster, Connacht and Leicester have also left with the points. Friday week's game is Munster's biggest game in Cork in recent memory. Defeat would leave them with little chance of qualifying.

Just last week, captain CJ Stander conceded that teams are not afraid of the once mighty red jersey at home or away, and the manner of Connacht's win just confirmed his point.

Leinster exposed Edinburgh's limitations at the RDS, but the Scots will have watched Pat Lam's side demolish the Munster scrum a day later and licked their lips.

Foley's men need a top six finish to qualify for the Champions Cup and they could have their fate sealed next weekend if they lose to Edinburgh and Cardiff beat Ospreys at the Millennium Stadium.

That would leave Edinburgh sixth, Cardiff seventh and Munster behind in eighth. Edinburgh and Cardiff meet on the final day and it would take an unlikely set of results to allow the Reds to sneak in with a win over a Scarlets side likely to be vying for a top four finish despite their late-season slump.

Even if both Edinburgh and Munster leapfrog Scarlets, the lower team of the two will miss out on qualification because the top Welsh team must qualify.

It all comes down to Cork. Win, and Munster will go into the final round with their fate in their own hands. Lose and they'll be hoping things go their way elsewhere.

In other seasons, having their final two games at home would be of comfort, but they've lost four of their last seven with home advantage. This year, all bets are off.

Irish Independent

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