Friday 18 August 2017

Tony Ward: Munster in ideal position to kick off brave new era

Conor Murray scores his third try during Munster’s victory over Newport Gwent Dragons at Irish Independent Park, Cork on Saturday
Conor Murray scores his third try during Munster’s victory over Newport Gwent Dragons at Irish Independent Park, Cork on Saturday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. Ulster head coach Neil Doak really had an impossible dilemma on Saturday. Had the former scrum-half and ex-Ireland cricketer selected his first-up team at Scotstoun and come up short, the season - and more specifically next Friday's rematch - would effectively be over.

Of course Anthony Foley and Munster would have wished that so-called protocol had been observed and the strongest Ulster line-up took to the field but they better than anyone get the reasons why Doak held something back.

Indeed it was from within the Munster camp that I learned on Monday last the intended Doak strategy. And, to be fair to Munster, though a little miffed for public consumption, it was an absolute no-brainer. Foley would have done the same thing.

The proof of course will be in the ultimate outcome. If Ulster win in Glasgow (and bear in mind no team has won an away semi-final since the play-offs came back into being), the head honcho is a tactical genius; lose, however, and the knives will be out.

There is no middle ground, particularly where some fans are concerned. So while it may not have helped the Munster cause (Glasgow achieving an otherwise unlikely five-pointer), Pat Lam and Connacht stepped into the breach as lifesavers.

THUMPING

Indeed it was that type of weekend with Leinster helping Connacht into the seventh-place play-off when getting the better of Edinburgh, Connacht then giving Munster a lifeline when denying Ospreys the fourth try and with it a home semi-final and Munster helping themselves by thumping Newport Gwent Dragons at Irish Independent Park.

Sometimes old friends and foes are best as the provinces proved reliant on each other to get over the finishing line.

The net result sees two Irish sides still grappling for a place in that Kingspan final although Doak's Ulster will have to create their own little bit of history if they are to run out before the Belfast faithful on May 30.

With Connacht on the road to Kingsholm next Saturday for the first of the Champions Cup play-offs between the Pro12, English Premiership and Top 14, it means that for Leinster alone of the Irish provinces the season is over.

How ironic is that? It's been a tough season for Matt O'Connor and everyone involved at Leinster Rugby but much though we would like to think the only way is up, there are some choppy waters still to be navigated as the Rugby World Cup looms large with O'Connor unlikely to be in position to select from anything close to a full hand until late October at the earliest.

But back to matters immediate and a pretty impressive showing from Ulster given the dozen or so changes from the previous week's draw with Munster.

For 40 minutes the shadow line-up not alone frustrated but deservedly led the best squad over the course of the 22-game marathon to date. It was going to take something special to ignite the Warriors and though out-half Finn Russell deservedly took the man of the match prize, it was the sometimes erratic but generally electric Stuart Hogg who eventually lit the fuse.

A typically brilliant solo try unlocked the Ulster defence and in the process let loose the offloading, free-running game on which Glasgow rugby has thrived under Gregor Townsend.

Obviously, we hope an Irish side takes that Pro12 crown from Leinster but if not then Glasgow would be fitting champions. They left it late on Saturday but over the course of a season a league table seldom lies. The home comfort of a semi-final is richly deserved.

From an Irish perspective, I expect Thomond Park to be rocking like old Heineken Cup times come Saturday. It is time for Munster's 16th man to reassert himself.

If they can finish an up-and-down season with the main domestic trophy then watch out Europe in 2015/'16. I really believe with a revamped midfield that a new and exciting era lies ahead. To win the Pro12 is not essential but would make for some springboard along the way.

The Ospreys will travel to Limerick expecting to win and, however perverse the logic might sound, it is for that reason that I expect Munster to be travelling to Kingspan on the 30th.

As for Connacht, they are, as John Muldoon suggests, "a young squad growing and learning". It is a big task ahead with the Challenge Cup winners on their home patch but what an incentive for the Sportsground and a home tilt with the Top 14 qualifier should they pull that one off.

I still regard the Parker Pen victory over Northampton in Franklin's Gardens under Warren Gatland back in 1998 as their greatest achievement (given its context) although Toulouse in Stade Ernest-Wallon clearly rocked the watching rugby world.

Five defeats in their last six games is not the type of form to be carrying into Kingsholm but the most wins (10) garnering the biggest total of points (50) in the highest ever placing (seventh) represents tangible progress for Connacht under Pat Lam.

A Champions Cup place under their own steam (and not on Leinster's coat-tails) is the ultimate short-term goal. They still have it all to do but don't rule them out. There was only a converted try in it when they met in the Challenge Cup quarter-final in early April. Expect it to be every bit as close again.

Pro12 Super Saturday lived up to the hype with ten of the 12 competing teams still in with a shot of qualifying for the 2015/'16 Champions Cup. Included in that was the battle of the basement between Zebre and Treviso. Combined, they still finished last behind Cardiff. Scary.

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