The weekend’s news sent shockwaves across Ireland. No, it was not Brian Cowan’s meeting with his parliamentary party, although that story is still rather spicy.
It was the demise of Munster and the rise of Ulster. For the first time in 13 years, they failed to reach the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup, losing 32 – 16 to Toulon. At the other end of the Irish Rugby scale, Ulster beat tournament favourites, Biarritz of France.
As a former resident of Limerick (Ireland’s rugby capital), I know how my friends down south are feeling right now. They follow Munster with passionate devotion. For them, this really is a sporting Armageddon. Such was the blow to them that I even resisted the temptation to slag that it was the English fly-half, Johnny Wilkinson, who did much of the damage.
Some will blame the team’s poor showing in this competition on injuries. Certainly, that has not helped. It may be, however, that the spine of this present team is ageing and in decline.
Perhaps Munster needed this defeat. They have come back many times from the brink to grab a quarter final place. Now, they can accept that they need to re-build their team. Munster will rise to glory again.
Contrast Munster’s position with Ulster, whose fortunes in this competition are almost a mirror reversal. Ulster are still in the competition following their famous 9 – 6 win on Saturday against Biarritz. Ian Humphries did the business.
If Ulster win next week against bottom-of-the-pool Aironi of Italy, they are almost certain to obtain a quarter final place. Biarritz have a harder game against Bath but are still favourites to win that match. Ulster will win the group if they achieve one more point more than Biarritz next week. A weekend trip to Viadana now looks tempting.