Ulster now the only realistic contenders for last eight
Irish rugby hasn’t known such a demoralising weekend in a long time. For the first time in almost six years, all four provinces lost, after Munster went down in another full-on bruiser with Saracens at Vicarage Road, where the Red Army provided an estimated third of the 15,288 crowd in Watford. The net effect is to leave only Ulster still standing atop their pool, and also looking the only realistic contenders for a place in the quarter-finals come April.
The last time all four Irish provinces were beaten on the same weekend was in the final round of pool games in 2006-07. That was the weekend when Munster lost their long unbeaten European record at Thomond Park to Leicester after Leinster had lost to Gloucester the preceding Friday night, thereby condemning both to away quarter-finals, which they lost – the only year in the last seven seasons when no Irish side reached the last four.
That weekend, Ulster suffered a fourth pool defeat away to Toulouse, while Connacht lost a fifth pool game in the Challenge Cup away to Harlequins.
Both Leinster’s and Munster’s pools are unlikely to yield a qualifying spot for the two best runners-up, not least with Sale (beaten 62-0 by Toulon yesterday) and Cardiff having their bellies tickled in Pool Six, although the Ospreys beating Toulouse and remaining competitive in Pool Two brightens that glimmer of hope.
One always felt the aberrations of their opening defeat to Racing would come back to haunt Munster, who have now slipped to third in Pool One and have a maximum 21 points to aim for, pending a visit to Edinburgh and hosting Racing in Limerick next month.
But they possibly have a better chance of qualifying as group winners than Leinster, given Racing Metro also remain in a three-way mix, whereas Clermont are effectively out of Leinster’s reach.
Were they to finish level, Munster and Saracens have the same head-to-head record over the course of the two matches – five match points, a try and 28 points apiece – which shows you how little there has been between the sides over the two matches. In that scenario, it would come down to tries scored in the pool and Saracens currently have two more (nine) than Munster (seven).
“Don’t know,” smiled Rob Penney when asked if qualification would now be difficult. “We’ve still got the ability to get 10 points. Who knows what will happen in the next two games? There’s a lot of rugby to be played. I’d be very optimistic that the group of boys that we’ve got will put themselves in the best possible place to be able to qualify.”