Going out in the Pro12 semi-final will mean a wash-out of a season for Munster, Ulster or Leinster
No matter how well any of the Irish provinces have played, this is no weekend for it all to end
Glasgow Warriors have won their last eight games in a row, including beating Munster at Thomond Park last month. photograph: inpho
The season is going to end this weekend for a couple of teams and by the middle of next week their players are going to be sitting around wondering where it all went wrong. The semi-finals of the Rabo are a terrible place to finish up – at least if you make the final and end up getting beaten, you gave yourself a shot at a trophy. To go out in the semi-final just leaves you feeling annoyed about the way the season went.
Take Munster, for example. If they lose in Glasgow on Friday night, then it will mean a season that had been going so well just ended with a whimper. At the start of March, they were still in the Heineken Cup and stood on top of the Rabo table having only lost two games. Between the two competitions, they’ve lost five games out of their last nine since then.
Part of it obviously was trying to keep going on two fronts at the same time. A bit like Liverpool in the Premiership, a team like Glasgow have been able to concentrate on the Rabo without any European distractions. Every week since the Six Nations, they’ve been able to work together consistently without any real disruption to their squad.
Munster haven’t had that luxury , neither have Ulster or Leinster, but we’ll get onto them in a minute – and it has really tested their resources. The simple truth is that they just don’t have the depth at the minute to be able to compete properly in both competitions.
The deflation after going out of the Heineken has played a part too. Even when I was playing, switching focus back to the league after going out of Europe was always difficult. That’s probably even more the case now, especially in a season Munster were top of the league in March and pretty much guaranteed a spot in the play-offs from a good distance out.
The poor results in recent weeks just go to show that you will only get away with playing poorly for so long. You can scrape through matches, you can get a bit of luck but eventually over the course of a league, you will be found wanting.
Peaked too early
Teams who win competitions peak at this time of year and by the look of Munster recently, they peaked too early. The best rugby they played was obviously in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulouse. Since then, they’ve only beaten Connacht and Edinburgh. The season has just drifted away from them.
There’s been no real fluency in their backline in recent weeks and decision-making has been a constant problem. Depth has been a problem with their backs, whereas actually it’s been okay in their forwards. They’ve had a lot of possession but haven’t made enough of it. Maybe it’s a mental problem or maybe it’s just a quality issue – whatever the reason, they’ve been heading in the wrong direction at the wrong time of the year.
It’s hard to just switch on a performance. They’re coming up against a Glasgow side that’s on a roll and yet you have to go back over two months to find the last time that Munster were putting a string of really consistent performances back to back.
On that basis, it’s hard to make a case for them winning on Friday night. You’d always expect Munster to find a way when it really matters but it’s not just that easy. Glasgow are favourites with the bookies and they deserve to be.
They came with a great run at the end of the league last year and very nearly upset Leinster in the semi-final. They’ve done something similar this year in winning their last eight games in a row, including beating Munster at Thomond Park. I know which formline I’d rather be carrying into the game.
Ulster’s season has derailed a little bit as well. In the end, they’ve probably been lucky enough not to drop out of the play-offs themselves after losing three of their last five games. If Ospreys had stuck to their task a bit better over the closing stages, Ulster might have been in a bit of trouble.
In general, I think the play-offs are a great addition to the league because it challenges the teams mentally. It might seem a bit unfair on the team that finishes top of the league but I like the way it asks different questions of different teams. Some players can switch off and think they have their job done a lot earlier than if it was a pure league.
That happens, no doubt about it. As a long season draws to a close, players can find themselves expecting to win games without necessarily having to perform to their absolute best. And if one game goes or a couple of games go, there’s no huge consequences because you’re probably going to qualify anyway.
But if you look at both Munster and Ulster, the big consequence has been the loss of a home semi-final. The financial knock-on of that is a big deal, especially when it comes to going out and signing new players. More to the point, they both now have to travel this weekend to try and make the final. They’ve made it all just that bit harder on themselves.
If Ulster don’t win on Saturday, it will mean that for all the promise the season held it will end up being a bit of a damn squib. There’ll probably be a lot of sympathy for them but really, it’s not going to wash. Ulster can’t keep knocking on the door indefinitely. Eventually, they need to have something to show for all the investment and all the work that’s gone on up there.
As a player, it’s not easy to brush those seasons off. There’s pressure and expectation surrounding you because people know you have it in you to do well.
That’s where they’re at up in Ulster. This could be the last game a few of these guys play in a white jersey and the prospect of them leaving or retiring without having won anything is very real. If that’s the situation they find themselves in after the weekend, the deflation is immense. There’s nothing worse than looking back with what-ifs.
That’s what makes this such a massive weekend. You can save your season or it can peter out to nothing. At least if you win this weekend, your season will end with a final. Regardless of the result, it’s something to hold on to in the off season.
Even Leinster, who’ve finished off the league so well, will feel that the season has been a bit of a wash-out if Ulster beat them on Saturday. They’ve won their last seven games in a row but to go out in the semi-final having not even made the semis of the Heineken Cup would leave a bitter taste. Make no bones about it, that would count as a poor season for them.
Leinster’s consistency has been really admirable over the late part of the season. They haven’t been hitting the heights they were when they were winning the Heineken Cup and they haven’t been playing as well.
But what they have been doing is making sure that winning culture and that winning feeling permeates throughout the club. You can see that they have this huge determination to make it across the line and finish the season out properly.
You’d have to expect them to win on Saturday but I do have a sneaking suspicion that Ulster will go to Dublin feeling that they’ve got a second bite of the cherry. Their results haven’t been great against Leinster but sooner or later, they’re going to get one over on them. Maybe not this week though.
In the other game, Munster are definitely capable of winning in Glasgow but we’re back to the same old situation with them of hoping they pull something out of the bag, some sort of a reaction to their poor form. My worry is that you can’t just go out and switch it on at this time of year. Glasgow are in such good form and I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if they won.