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Crisis? Yes for the English, Welsh and Scots but not Munster

Irish provinces have consistently punched above their weight in Europe and here are the facts that prove it.

Things aren't as glum as they look for Munster.
Things aren't as glum as they look for Munster.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IN LIMERICK TODAY, there was a defiant refusal to talk about a post-mortem once it became clear the corpse actually had a pulse.

Events may alter things. To stay in this year’s Champions Cup, Munster need to call in favours from Toulouse, Lyon and Racing 92 – the most dependent any Irishmen have been on the French since Johnny Logan’s band were looking for the Parisian jury’s votes at the 1987 Eurovision.

There’s a reason why these things matter. Despite the precariousness of their position, Munster have still managed to flog 19,000 tickets for Sunday’s game against the Ospreys; further evidence of people’s willingness to invest money as well as time into this team.

You don’t need to be a historian to figure out why. Rewind to 1999 and the province’s first appearance in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. Suddenly, that team learned how to win and with a few exceptions, they have been doing that in Europe ever since, making more visits to the quarter-finals than any other club.

Missing out this time will sting in the pocket but not as much as it’ll hurt in the heart. The fact is that Munster like to hang out with rugby’s elite, reaching six European semi-finals this decade, the same number Saracens have chalked up. Only one side, Leinster, have managed more in the last 10 years.

maro-itoje-celebrates-after-the-game Munster have reached as many Champions Cup semis as Saracens this decade. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

To an extent, you can see why forecasters may predict the beginning of the end if Munster miss out this time. After all, Stade Francais, Biarritz and Perpignan were regulars at the business end of proceedings in the noughties. But the latter pair haven’t been seen in the knock-out stages since 2011 while Stade Francais – as well as former winners, Leicester and Northampton, haven’t been spotted in a quarter-final since 2016.

It’s a tournament that doesn’t respect tradition. Upstarts have always been welcome, Ulster coming from nowhere to win in 1999, Northampton doing the same a year later. Wasps too showed little regard for those who went before them, winning the only finals they ever reached in 2004 and 2007.

Across channel, Toulon were this decade’s nouveau riche; Saracens being England’s equivalent.

It’s been one of the European Cup’s recurring themes. So many teams come and go. Who now remembers the shining lights of the ‘90s, Brive or Colomiers? Who can recall that Saracens reached only one quarter-final prior to 2012? Not as many who could tell you they have been in every one of them since.

In all likelihood, they’ll be back there again in April but even if they do make it at Munster’s expense, it hardly constitutes a crisis at Thomond Park.

They’ve been here before, remember, missing out on the knock-outs in 2011. A spate of injuries and then retirements followed; the end of the line coming for the veterans of 2006 and 2008. But what’s often overlooked is the fact Munster recovered from that 2011 mishap by going quarter-final, semi-final, semi-final over the next three European seasons.

andrew-conway-celebrates-his-try-with-rory-scannell-and-alex-wootton Andrew Conway's try sent Munster to the 2018 semi-final. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Then came another sporting recession in 2015 and 2016. Again the end was predicted. Again, they bounced back with three successive trips to the semis.

That’s their ceiling, though. “We’re getting closer, year after year,” Chris Farrell said today. But getting close wins you respect, not silverware.

Saracens, Leinster and Racing have been too good for Munster over the last three years and remain top of the queue for glory in 2020. Toulouse and Clermont are also ahead of Munster in the line.

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But that doesn’t constitute a crisis. Look at Scarlets and Glasgow – each of whom have been outstanding Pro14 champions in the last five years. But between them they’ve reached just one European Cup semi-final this decade. Munster have been in six.

Worse again, Welsh sides have managed just three knock-out appearances across the last 10 years; Scotland’s two sides have managed four visits, whereas England’s poster boys, Exeter, have qualified for the quarter-finals just once prior to this season.

Delve deeper into the evidence. Take Saracens out of the equation, and it looks even worse for the Premiership – Wasps being the only English team, bar Sarries, to reach a semi-final since Northampton lost out to Leinster in the 2011 Heineken Cup final.

When you look to France you see a different story; Clermont and Racing knocking on the door as forcefully as Stade Francais did in the early years of this century; Toulon winning it three times, Toulouse on the verge of going level with Munster with an 18th trip to the quarters.

Yet Toulouse and Clermont aside – the fortunes of French clubs are tied to the pockets of their owners, history showing how big spending clubs tend to disappear once the sugar-daddy runs out of sugar.

It’s hardly a revelation to learn that Ireland’s system is built on something different. None of the four provinces have Montpellier’s budget. But they have something else – consistency. Between them, Leinster, Munster and Ulster have reached the knock-outs on 20 occasions this decade. Montpellier, on the other hand, have been to just one Champions Cup quarter-final.

So that’s the extent of the Munster crisis. Get their act together in the remainder of the season, secure a home Pro14 semi-final and they’ll be two steps away from being a top seed for next year’s Champions Cup. Welsh, Scottish and a half-dozen English clubs would love that kind of predicament.

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