Saturday 21 January 2017

Four reasons why tonight's crunch Champions Cup qualification clash could define Munster's future

Published 29/04/2016 | 10:36

After a season of underachievement, Munster have a chance to salvage a Champions Cup place at home to Edinburgh tonight.

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A loss at Irish Independent Park to the travelling Scots will all but ensure Munster miss out on playing in the marquee tournament next year, and with it would come the likely end of Anthony Foley's tenure in charge of the team.

Although he is signed up to be head coach next season, it is hard to imagine Foley remaining in the position were Munster to miss out on Champions Cup qualification, especially given the impending arrival of new Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus from South Africa.

That is just one of the factors at play tonight, in what should be a tense yet massively exciting encounter, given the stakes.

Munster have struggled to fill Thomond Park over the last few seasons, but with the match being played in the tighter confines of Cork's Irish Independent Park, the stands should be full to the brim.

With so much expectation from the fans heading into tonight's game, there is a fair bit of pressure on the home side, and with good reason.

Here are four ways that Munster's future could be badly damaged were they to lose tonight's game.

Loss of earnings

This is a no-brainer really, Munster's gate receipts will be significantly higher if they are competing in Europe's top-tier tournament, where teams like Clermont and Saracens can visit Thomond Park. Furthermore, given that Munster are likely to be a fourth seed even if they do qualify, they would probably end up welcoming three European heavyweights to Limerick, which would obviously help their bank balance if not there chances of progressing to the knock-out stages.

Playing in the Challenge Cup against mid-table opposition from France, England and the Pro12 won't stir the interest of the Munster fan base, who failed to sell-out their home Champions Cup encounters this year.

Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald estimated last week that missing out on Champions Cup qualification could cost the province over €500,000 in gate receipts, which would be a huge financial blow.

Loss of fans

All you need to do is look at the weekly attendance figures for Munster games to see that supporters aren't turning out in the same volume that they once were. There are a number of reasons for this - a fan base split between two main bases in Cork/Limerick, Friday night kickoff times that are inconvenient for travel - but there is no doubt that the team's performances is the number one factor.

Munster haven't challenged for honours as regularly as they did during the glory years of the noughties and the amount of fan in the stands have declined as a result.

But whatever about attendances this year, they would be even less if they were welcoming Pau and Worcester to Thomond Park next season instead of Toulon or Leicester. Two strong wins to finish the season could reinvigorate the fans and give them top class European rugby to look forward to next year as well as a new Director of Rugby who is sure to bring in plenty of innovative and fresh ideas.

Loss of status

European rugby is better when Munster are thriving. Even fans of rival teams acknowledge that their isn't another ground that compares with the Thomond Park roar when the team are driving towards the line. The province is synonymous with the European Cup and to slide into the second tier at such a crucial juncture in the team's history would be catastrophic.

Irish rugby is crying out for an infusion of top class overseas talent in order to compete with English and French clubs and Munster's ability to recruit such players would be severely hindered by not playing in the Champions Cup. The draw of a packed European night at Thomond Park is significant, since Irish teams struggle to match the wages offered in other countries.

Loss of a legend

Of course, coaches should ultimately be judged by results alone, but no Munster fan will delight in losing Anthony Foley if he stepped away after missing out on Champions Cup qualification. The former back row has given his life to the province and helped back-bone the team's inaugural ascent to the summit of European rugby.

The fact that Foley has enjoyed such success with Munster undoubtedly makes this disastrous season even harder to take, and the prospect of Foley's coaching CV having a provincial mistake on it in an unpleasant one. It would also tarnish his legacy among supporters, with people remembering his tenure as a coach rather than his glory as a player - that's how it always is.

If Foley can galvanise his squad into finishing the season on a high, then perhaps he too can enjoy a rejuvenated season next year. While Fitzgerald indicated that Erasmus would pick the team and dictate tactics, working under the South African might help Foley develop further as a coach while also allowing the team to prosper.

He has never had more on the line.

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