Finalists in the prestigious competition in two of the last three seasons, Munster realistically needed to win at Perpignan to give them hope of reaching the last eight by way of their ultimate pool game against Gloucester in Limerick on Saturday.
Despite the fact that Munster have never lost a European Cup game at Thomond Park, they now have to defeat Gloucester — currently ranked the best team in England — and outscore them by five tries to book a place in the quarterfinals. That is a monumental task and not even the most partisan of supporters is envisaging a reprieve.
The situation appeared far from hopeless at halftime in Perpigan, at which stage Munster trailed by only 13-8. However, they then only managed to produced what coach Alan Gaffney described as “the worst 40 minutes we’ve played all season.” With the French quickly gaining control of the game, the result was a foregone conclusion.
“We had to be patient, and the players had a clear picture of what it was they had to do,” Gaffney said, “but instead we rushed things, we panicked and we paid the price. We just didn’t handle it very well when the pressure came on.”
In the end, a try by Antony Foley and a penalty by Ronan O’Gara were all the visitors had to show for their efforts as Perpignan ran in four tries for a fully deserved win.
While Munster were left to rue a missed opportunity, Leinster impressively secured their place in the knockout stages with a crushing 48-19 over Welsh side Swansea. After a reasonably competitive first half, the game soon became a rout with Leinster triumphing by eight tries to one. A win in their last pool match on Sunday against Bristol will guarantee them home advantage for the quarterfinals.
Denis Hickie was in sharp form with three tries to his name, while Victor Costello, Keith Gleeson, Aidan McCullen, Des Dillon and Gordon D’Arcy each scored one. With a 100 percent record from their pool to date, Leinster have emerged as one of the favorites for the competition.
As for Ulster, there were mixed emotions following their 33-21 victory in Cardiff. If the manner of the victory was admirable, Ulster now have only a slim hope of keeping their interest in the cup alive. Friday’s final pool game against Northampton in Belfast will decide the outcome, with the English only needing a draw, while the Irish province must win and outscore their opponents by four tries, or by three tries and a victory margin of 19 points.
Two first-half tries by Neil McMillan set Ulster on their way and with David Humphreys kicking 15 points to add to an opportunist drop goal by Bryn Cunningham, a Cardiff comeback was never likely.
In the lesser realm of the European Challenge Cup, there was disappointment on two fronts for Connacht. First, they lost the first leg of their quarterfinal against Pontypridd by 35-30 and, second, this was against the backdrop of a threat to the very existence of the province’s professional set-up.
With the Irish Rugby Football Union engaged in a cost-cutting exercise on the back of a projected loss of euro 7 million next season, there have been strong indications that the reduction of the number of professional provincial squads from four to three was the IRFU’s preferred choice.
With Connacht the fall guys, there was widespread anger among the province’s players and supporters following the news that the Western province was likely to get the axe. Although the IRFU has insisted that it has yet to reach a decision, Connacht appear to be living on borrowed time.
“I get really angry when people talk about Connacht having to prove a point because of the IRFU,” said former international outhalf, Eric Elwood. “We’ve improved and improved every time over the last three years and you cannot ask any more of the team.” Certainly, despite their lack of playing resources, Connacht have been highly competitive in recent times, with their Under-21 side winning the provincial championship, while the interest in rugby at schools level has mushroomed.
It has been suggested that IRFU will save in the region of euro 2 million by terminating Connacht as a professional entity. If that happens — and an announcement is likely in the next fortnight — the team will be reduced to development status in order to provide players for the three main provinces.
Two late tries by wing Wayne Munn were not enough to stave off defeat by Pontypridd in Athlone and with the aggregate scores to count over the two games, Connacht are now five points in arrears going into the second leg in Wales.