Munster have power to restore fortress
It's hard to believe, but the 10th season of the Celtic League is almost over. The format has varied -- as have the participants in that time.
In the first two years Wales was represented very strongly -- they had nine clubs in all at that time. We'll always remember the likes of Neath, Cardiff and Llanelli, but there was also Caerphilly and Ebbw Vale. It's like something from a time warp. Ebbw Vale won just two games in their two-year involvement, while Caerphilly lost all 13 of the matches they played.
The third season saw the biggest change, with Wales introducing regional teams to tie in with the Irish provinces and Scottish districts.
The new 12-team tournament adopted a home-and-away playing format for the first time, with the 22-game league alone determining the outright winner. Llanelli topped it, with all five newly constructed Welsh regions finishing in the top six.
The Ospreys took the title off the Scarlets in 2005. So, while slow in capturing the Welsh public imagination off the field, the regionalisation of the club game in the Principality certainly had a big impact on the pitch.
The league format alone continued up until last year, although there were a couple of attempts at knockout Celtic Cups around '04 and '05. The top-four play-offs and grand final initiative was reintroduced for last season.
This season saw the tournament expanded to include Italian 'super sides' Treviso and Aironi.
I mention this historical backdrop in an attempt to make clear my take on the Celtic competition. And let me be clear here: I support 100pc any attempts to make the Celtic League (or Pro 12 as it looks likely to be rebranded) the best professional competition it can possibly be.
We need a vibrant bread and butter professional tournament more than ever. Without a regular Celtic League in whatever manifestation, there cannot be a Heineken Cup with a meaningful Celtic involvement.
It's hard to specify exactly what the league is currently lacking, to put my finger on the missing ingredient. For sure, not having a promotion/relegation trapdoor doesn't help.
Here, the French Top 14 and English Premiership (despite previous attempts at ring-fencing) have a huge advantage over the Celtic League.
To be fair, these things take time and while the Heineken Cup took off pretty much immediately, the Celtic competition has spluttered and stuttered along the way.
The success of the Irish sides in Europe has helped generate interest, with consistently healthy attendances at Leinster, Munster and Ulster Magners League games.
The trust issue has also been addressed. Remember not so long ago when the Welsh regions were at one in their criticism of the IRFU and Irish provinces in what they perceived as 'selective selection' for Celtic League games?
Irish teams travelling to away games minus stellar names did little in helping the Welsh transition from club to region.
The breakdown in titles won to date reads: Ospreys (3); Munster (2); Leinster (2); Ulster (1); Scarlets (1). Five to Ireland and four to Wales, with the Scots left empty-handed.
Unfortunately, with so many Scottish players plying their trade abroad, there is little to suggest that this situation is going to change in the immediate future.
Yet again this season it is the Welsh and the Irish going for glory. Last year it was Leinster and the Ospreys contesting the first Grand Final and this time it is these two, plus Munster and Ulster, that make up the four play-off places.
Out-of-sorts defending champions the Ospreys run out at Thomond Park this afternoon against a Munster unit under pressure. There is little love lost between the teams anyway but, given the situations both now find themselves in (dare one suggest on the edge of transition), qualifying for the final would provide an encouraging springboard.
A second successive semi-final defeat at home for Munster doesn't bear thinking about.
If the Ospreys get in amongst them early, and succeed in rattling Tony McGahan's side, the men in red could suffer a crisis in confidence.
The Ospreys management know that. The fortress that was Thomond Park came tumbling down against Harlequins and the onus is on today's team to rebuild it rapidly.
Here, I am old school. I want to see Munster do what they do best and return to basics. The Brive rollercoaster ride was unreal and the fallout came against Conor O'Shea's Quins.
There would be nothing sweeter than seeing Dougie Howlett, Keith Earls and the fast-developing Felix Jones in full flight, but only on the basis of the forward mayhem we have come to expect and take for granted on days like this.
I don't believe Munster's number is up, but they are up against a powerful scrummaging unit, even if the visitors have been blowing hot and cold of late. The Ospreys came from third last year to eventually beat Leinster convincingly in the RDS final.
They finished one place further back this time having squeezed into the play-offs at the death courtesy of a late James Hook penalty away to Aironi. Hardly the stuff of potential champions, but they can't be underestimated.
They may be defending their crown, but the Ospreys still have everything to gain, though McGahan suggested it is the Ospreys and not Munster who are under the most pressure.
I do not agree. I believe McGahan is the man to lead Munster forward, but he is under the microscope. If there is any justice, considering both sides' form throughout the league campaign, then Munster will seal their place in the decider, making it another very special All-Ireland final to finish off the season.
But should Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe, Dan Biggar, the immensely gifted Hook and the rest cut loose, then an unthinkable second home semi-final defeat on the bounce could happen. Should that transpire, then the calm and collected attitude in the Munster camp concerning McGahan's position could shift appreciably.
One result should not transform the picture, as articulated in midweek by CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, but such are the vagaries of life in the fast lane of professional rugby.
McGahan has been good for Munster and deserves the opportunity to see his contract out. This is certainly a day when his players owe him one.
Take Munster to redeem themselves after the loss of a fortnight ago, but expect it to be tense and anything but pretty.