Munster in real danger of being left behind
In just over 10 months in charge, Joe Schmidt has achieved what I for one in October would have considered impossible. There is a wonderful symmetry to the way Leinster have been playing rugby this season.
Last Saturday's second half against Northampton in Cardiff demonstrated exactly what can be achieved when backs and forwards amalgamate into one finely tuned machine.
Overturning a 16-point deficit in the final of the Heineken Cup was incredible but, really, we should not have been all that surprised. Leinster have been playing a brand of rugby all year which, even on an off day, was far beyond anything Northampton were capable of defending.
Toppling Toulouse, Leicester, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne on their way to the final only reaffirms their position as the top side in Europe.
With one trophy already secure, Schmidt takes his squad to Thomond Park this afternoon aiming to end this season with a Magners League title to add to the Heineken Cup. That is an achievement well within their compass.
Munster fans must question where their team can win this game. For six months now Tony McGahan has had to face the painful reality that the two-time European champions are a shadow of their former selves.
The coach hasn't helped his case either by the absence of any decipherable game plan to fit his ageing squad. Munster's 13-point lead after 22 rounds of Magners League competition was more a reflection on the standard of the tournament itself than anything Munster have produced since September.
Scotland and Wales face a serious crisis with their club game and the performances of sides from both countries in the Heineken Cup this year reflects as much.
While officials in charge of the league will no doubt point to the excitement and diversity of a four-nation tournament, the reality is that, after nine months of competition, Irish teams were occupying three of the top four positions come May.
The Celtic League still has a long way to go to capture the imagination of rugby supporters and, with Munster fans relying on success this afternoon to salvage a bad season, their position is a clear demonstration of just how far they have fallen in recent years.
In the Heineken Cup, a tournament Munster have always considered their bread and butter, they failed to get past the group stages for the first time since 1997. That unwanted statistic was followed by the worst Munster performance at Thomond Park since the beginning of professional rugby when they were out-played, out-thought and out-fought by a young and inexperienced Harlequins in the semi-final of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Munster fans have every right to be worried. There have been suggestions that Leinster will be tired and switched off this afternoon following last weekend's success, but nothing about their performances and attitude this season suggests this will be the case. Gordon D'Arcy aside, Leinster are fully fit and at full strength.
Where do Munster plan on winning this match? The home side have failed to score a single try against their opponents since April 2009 and, excluding the last match at Thomond Park, Leinster ran up five consecutive wins against their provincial rivals.
Leinster's whole game plan is built around keeping ball in hand, scoring tries and solid defence. They have demonstrated against the best that England and France has to offer that they not only have buckets of pace and skill out wide, but they also have a pack of forwards capable of standing toe to toe with any club side in the world.
Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Nathan Hines provide momentum and go-forward ball while Jonathan Sexton is fast becoming one of the best fly-halves in the game. O'Brien fully deserved his ERC Player of the Year award this week and his name is now an automatic selection for Declan Kidney in the World Cup.
Munster rely hugely on Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell to grind out results and if either is below par, the whole team falls apart. Munster's scrum, which has been a monumental disaster for almost six years, will again be obliterated by whichever starting front-row Schmidt decides to select.
The gulf in standard between Leinster and Munster has now become so great that Munster are in real danger of being left behind. Investment this summer is paramount to any future success and while home-grown talent might suffer in the short term, Irish rugby cannot afford to see Munster slip any further down the pecking order.
Perhaps a change of coach is needed sooner rather than later. Loyalty to a failing format does nobody any favours. Thomond Park is quickly losing its impenetrable aura that has taken the best part of 14 years to build up.
This afternoon, I expect Leinster to hammer another nail in the Limerick ground's reputation.