Y OU have to hand it to Munster. The way in which they got themselves over the finishing line against Northampton on Friday night, so qualifying for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the 12th year in succession, is a remarkable achievement by any standards.
Munster still remain the pre-eminent brand in European rugby -- a veritable phenomenon in that context, not to mention in Irish sport. Watching Friday night's game, however, could only cause us to question whether we were looking at a different Munster unit than the one we've grown to know over the years ?
I'm reluctant to write any team off and prematurely discuss the issue of their demise, particularly so with this great Munster team, but when one enlists one must march.
While I have always believed that they will challenge at the business end of proceedings in this season's competition, as they are now doing, the absence of Denis Leamy, coupled with worryingly persistent difficulties at scrum-time, will militate against ultimate success.
Okay, so at least there is a home quarter-final which will pose as difficult a challenge as ever for any visiting team unlucky enough to be awarded that pleasure as their prize for reaching the knock-out stage.
More interestingly, in what shape will Munster be a year or two further down the road? Just look at their line-up on Friday and at some of the subs introduced. Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Paul O'Connell in the forwards, and Ronan O'Gara behind the scrum, are all the wrong side of 30. There are also question marks, albeit of a contractual nature, over Kiwi Dougie Howlett and Springbok Jean de Villiers, while Wian du Preez has already left for home.
While not of immediate concern in terms of their ability to win games (on the contrary in fact), there are questions to be answered in relation to the development of younger talent of a quality capable of knocking on the dressing room door and filling the boots of the over-30 brigade.
Similarly, looking at the Munster team-sheet on Friday night, it is striking to note only one player in the starting 15 under the age of 25 -- centre Keith Earls. While it can be argued that this is a direct result of the quality, and longevity, of a number of older players, especially the elder statesmen Quinlan and Hayes, it is nonetheless a serious issue.
Casting an eye around Europe at some of the squads under construction, with Leinster and Leicester Tigers being the most
obvious examples, groups are being assembled which, in theory at least, should be in a position to challenge at the highest level of European competition for many years to come -- and at the level of consistency which Munster themselves achieved, and which has been their hallmark. It is they who have set the benchmark for all of their competitors over the past 12 years.
There's much talk at present of the contrast between the success of Leinster's academy system, and the age-profile of the Munster squad. An interesting observation is that all of the Munster 30-plus crew cut their teeth in the ultra-competitive arena of the Munster club game and, in fact, at just four clubs -- Shannon, Garryowen, Cork Con and Young Munster.
It can be argued that this is more an indicator of the development of the game in the province at the particular time of their arrival on the scene, or perhaps distinctions in the broad socio-economic backgrounds of the players, but there is no doubt that, at present, the downturn in the fortunes of the club game is impacting seriously on Munster.
Leicester have always relied on a vast scouting network throughout Britain and Ireland; Leinster, in the main, depend on their traditional schools and, to a lesser extent, their slowly-emerging youths systems.
Both production lines appear currently to be well maintained and in good working order. Munster's traditional indigenous playing base, having its foundations in the great traditions of Munster Cup battles and All-Ireland League dominance, appears to be struggling to keep pace.
All of this will be of largely academic interest this afternoon when the quarter-final pairings become clear. A home quarter-final at a thronged Thomond Park, regardless of the opposition, will always set pulses racing.