IT IS a measure of the impact of the South African teams on the United Rugby Championship (URC) that for two of the Irish provinces this is a defining week.
The decision of the organisers to reduce the number of games across the season to 18 and remove meritocracy for Heineken Champions Cup qualification has put the squeeze on these teams early. From next season, the tournament will revert to having the top eight teams qualifying for what was once the European Cup, but under a compromise reached for the first two seasons against the provinces and the IRFU’s wishes, the provinces are under huge pressure this year.
The top team from each of the four ‘shields’ is guaranteed Champions Cup rugby, leaving four other spots for the remaining teams.
Leinster and Ulster are already in a dominant position in the Irish Shield, meaning Munster and Connacht need to get up the ladder quickly.
What makes life even more difficult for the Irish provinces is that they face each other so often.
Given their quality, the South Africans are equally challenged but it is difficult to argue that the Welsh derbies or Scottish/Italian fixtures will test the better teams in those ‘shields’.
Last year, eighth-placed Glasgow Warriors missed out on Champions Cup rugby despite finishing ahead of Ospreys in ninth. As the best-ranked Welsh side, they made the grade.
Last season, Munster were the lowest ranked non-shield winners to qualify for the Champions Cup. They finished sixth, with 56 points – six more than Glasgow who missed out.
If that’s the benchmark, then the Reds need to start picking up points.
The race has already begun, but they’re already playing catch-up.
So far, the southern province have picked up six points from a possible 15 against Cardiff, Dragons and Zebre. Compared to their season-long average of 3.1 points per game last year, they’re at two right now.
Put another way, Munster have to pick up 50 of an available 85 points to get back to that level.
Connacht, meanwhile, are currently bottom with zero points on the board.
They finished 15 off Munster last year, but the only solace for Andy Friend and his team is that their start was by far the most difficult of any of the teams as they began with away trips to Ulster, Stormers and the Bulls.
On Friday night, they’ll be on home turf for the first time and they’re back in Galway a week later. The fixture schedulers haven’t been kind here either, bringing Munster and Leinster as the first guests to the new astroturf at the Sportsground.
Clashes between the two sides are often fractious, but this one could be even more feisty than usual considering the impact poor form will have had on morale. Both teams have been hit by the Emerging Ireland tour, with Connacht down a couple of starters and Munster missing bench options who could make an impact.
They both re-jigged their coaching teams last summer, albeit Friend is presiding over the same personnel in a different structure while Graham Rowntree has stepped up to the top job and has introduced Mike Prendergast and Denis Leamy.
Changing the way Munster play is a long-term project, but the trick is to pivot while still having enough in the tank to win games along the way.
Nobody expects Rowntree to deliver silverware in year one, but missing out on the top competition for the first time would be perceived as a major blow to the province’s prestige.
There’s an argument to be made that a year in the Challenge Cup and a win in that tournament would be a good thing for Munster, but the province’s fans or hierarchy are unlikely to be on board with that idea.
It’s early days and there’s time for both provinces to turn things around.
The return of Jack Carty will help Connacht, while Munster will improve as long as the paucity of their performances to date doesn’t seep all the confidence away.
Friday is unlikely to be a classic; desperation derbies often aren’t.
Both sides know they need to win and will do anything to get there.
It may be early, but backs are already against the wall.