Munster can be the ticket to connacht euro dreams
Ulster were dogged to a fault; Leinster positively sublime -- yet it was Munster who were firmly in the spotlight following the penultimate qualifying stage to this Heineken Cup.
Needless to say, it's a spotlight that the southern province could well do without, but equally it's a reflection of the status the province now holds -- not just with opposing teams, but with rugby and sports lovers everywhere.
Yes, they are victims of their own success in setting the bar so high, but that comes with the territory. Never have they taken qualification for granted, but such has been its regularity over the past 12 years that something is going to be missing from the lives of Munster folk everywhere when the knockout stages kick into gear come April.
It's not by any means the end, but it's, without doubt, a changing of the guard as time finally catches up with so many who have served the province so well over such an extraordinary length of time. By any professional standard, the consistency of Munster in Europe has been exceptional. The Heineken Cup may have made Munster a global brand, but equally Munster have made the competition what it is today -- the best club tournament on the planet.
The 16th man, the Red Army, the exemplary silence, the high altar that is Thomond Park are all now part and parcel of the Heineken Cup. All wasn't lost in one poor 80-minute performance in the south of France last weekend, but it has put fan loyalty -- and the substance of this ageing squad -- to the test in how they respond this afternoon.
The suggestion that the visit of London Irish to Limerick for a European Cup tie represents a dead rubber is very wide of the mark. It's up to the fans to do their bit on the Thomond terraces, but for those centre stage, there's not only a professional job to be done, but there's still a massive incentive in gaining European Challenge Cup qualification.
Tony McGahan will have ample opportunity in the coming weeks (running parallel with the Six Nations) to give youth its fling in mixing and matching his Magners League line-ups. To have the added incentive of Amlin Challenge Cup involvement would add immeasurably to the season from here on in.
The opportunity arises here to blood the likes of Ian Nagle, Duncan Williams, Dave Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Mike Sherry and others in a different playing environment and level of intensity to Magners League.
As a step-up from Magners League to Heineken Cup, the Amlin Challenge is heaven sent for Munster now. For that -- and a myriad of other straight forward and obvious reasons -- victory over London Irish today really does matter. I defy anyone to argue otherwise and, yes, it's a test for the support base too. It's when the tide flows the other way, the need to 'stand up and fight' is at its greatest.
There's also another incentive for Irish rugby, as should Munster triumph in this shadow competition at the Cardiff City Stadium in May, it would secure an additional place in next year's Heineken Cup for Ireland.
When Cardiff beat Toulon in last year's Amlin final, it brought the Dragons into this season's premier competition, thereby bringing Heineken Cup rugby to all four Welsh professional regions. Were Munster to succeed Cardiff as Amlin Challenge Cup champions, it would bring Connacht into the Heineken Cup for the first time. What might that do for Eric Elwood and rugby in the west?
There shouldn't be any knee-jerk reaction to the Toulon defeat. Instead, common sense by way of measured changes should prevail. There's still a Magners League and Amlin Challenge Cup to be won, so transition should be gradual with whatever surgery is deemed necessary -- on the field and off -- to be carried out by Munster Rugby CEO Garrett Fitzgerald and the relevant committee in the summer months. And if there's to be change to the backroom staff, can I respectfully recommend the name of Niall O'Donovan.
'Niallo' is a proud Munster man to the core and a forward specialist, who has coached at the highest level. He's highly respected and popular with players and fellow coaches alike. Given that he's Limerick-based, I'm sure he could be convinced to come back on board the good ship Munster he served so well alongside Declan Kidney (first time round) for so long.
I believe passionately in an indigenous coaching input at every professional entity and with individuals of proven substance in Anthony Foley and O'Donovan, the way forward is obvious.
Behind the scrum, the jury is still out, with former centre Jason Holland currently calling the backline tune. Should that change, then in Brian Walsh and Michael Bradley, alternative expertise is ready, willing and Leeside-based.
Following what's now the traditional calculator weekend -- working out the eight qualifiers -- the national elite will head into camp to commence preparations for the Six Nations and first up trek to Rome.
To that end, Kidney named his preliminary squad of 32 this week and while normally it would carry little of consequence, the absence of Tomas O'Leary did surprise me.
Between injury and indifferent form, he has hardly been setting the world alight, yet I would still be astonished if he's not in the match-day squad (whether numbered nine or 20) to face the French in Dublin in four weeks time. It's no slight on Eoin Reddan or Peter Stringer, but O'Leary brings a different skill set to the other two.
Beyond that (on the assumption Mike Ross finally gets the nod at tight-head) there's a gaping hole to be filled at full-back in the enforced absence of Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy. Gavin Duffy is the most obvious replacement given his familiarity with the position. By contrast, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls have had precious little game-time in the position at all. Both players are working their way back to full match fitness and at this point in time, are suspect in terms of filling the last line and all it entails.
Right now, Kidney's got a huge void to fill and he knows it. Unless he solves it for Rome, it could haunt us in the weeks and matches of consequence that follow.
Time is fast running out.