Another chastening weekend for Irish rugby in Europe. True, Ulster kept the flag flying by recovering from a 23-0 half-time deficit to win 24-23 in the rain-sodden valley of the Jura Mountains in Oyonnax yesterday, but Munster emulated Leinster in suffering their earliest exit from the European Champions Cup, and in such a demoralising fashion that it appeared even Anthony Foley was questioning his own future.
Munster have apparently offered Foley an extension on his existing two-year contract, which expires at the end of this season. But for a home-grown son of a former Munster lock, steeped in the province’s rich rugby heritage, through St Munchin’s, Shannon and Munster, the pain of Saturday’s 27-7 defeat in the Stade Jean-Bouin was too almost too grim to bear.
“It’s about results, and I said it before and I’m clear on it: if I don’t feel I can get results, there’s no point in being here,” Foley said. “I’ve been brought up through here. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve come through the schools and everything, so it’s about winning. It’s not about people. It’s about getting results. It doesn’t matter. Sport has no memory, no conscience, so it doesn’t care. You’ve got to be able to do a job and make sure you get results.”
Admittedly, his comments came in the aftermath of that game, when his emotions were still raw. But clearly he won’t be signing any contract this week.
Asked if this meant he was considering his own position, Foley said: “I just answered the question. It’s about looking at everything, and I do it on a weekly basis. I nearly do it on a daily basis now at this stage.”
This second consecutive pool exit felt as demoralising as the eviscerating 33-10 defeat to Saracens that did for them on the penultimate weekend a year ago. This was the first time Munster have ever suffered three pool defeats in a row. Yet Foley suggested there had been some progress in the last 12 months.
“There’s a semblance of progress in terms of the way we’re trying to play, and some of the personnel that have come in and some of the guys that are trying to grow into positions,” he said. “We’ve got to see where the wood is from the trees at times.”
Next Saturday’s return meeting with the French champions is the first of two dead rubbers, though that’s not the way Foley sees it. “We’ve got to win,” he said of that game. “Got to win. Got to go and win. It’s not freebies here. We’re playing at home at Thomond Park and we’ve got to front up next week.”
Hence, his message to the supporters was: “Come out and support us next week. I think it’s important that we show force, and we come out and the boys will turn up and do the best we can.”
No less than Leinster, Munster need a Pro12 title, or at any rate a final, to redeem their season. “It needs something,” said Foley. “It needs something. We were having the same conversation this time last year around trying to get out of our group, so we need to change something.”
In the event, the only Irish team with aspirations of reaching the last eight of the European Champions Cup remain alive thanks to a 78th-minute penalty from 51 metres by Paddy Jackson in the Stade Charles Mathon. One of a triple substitution by Les Kiss, along with Nick Williams and Ruan Pienaar, during the interval, which also featured a rallying call by Rory Best, Jackson took the game by the scruff of the neck from the moment he came on and also converted three second-half tries by wingers Rory Scholes and Craig Gilroy and loosehead Kyle McCall (the second from the right touchline).
Reflecting on that interval, Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss said: “It was just a moment that we just had to stand up and take responsibility and own the drivel that we put out – and, to a man, they put their hand up.
“A couple of replacements were made, and I think they had to be made, although I do feel for the guys we replaced because the team as a whole didn’t do them a favour.”
He added: “Marshy [Paul Marshall], [Ian] Humphs and Lewis [Stevenson] haven’t played a lot of footie. We were very loose in that first half, with chest tackles, missed tackles, getting the ball reefed out of our grip. When the ball was on the ground we were trying to hack it away rather than diving on it.
“Our scrum wasn’t unified as a force as we know it can be and we gave them exactly what they were after: a way to build momentum and get the crowd in behind them. I guess we needed that half-time; we addressed what we needed to do and, thankfully, we got back into the game and on it.”
So Ulster are alive and kicking for the away game against Saracens next Saturday.
“We have a chance, without a doubt,” said Kiss. “It’s a massive week for us, next week, not an ideal one. Saracens get beat yesterday [by Harlequins], so they’ll be smarting.
“It doesn’t get any easier for us, but we’re in the hunt, and that’s the main thing. We need to get points out of next week somehow, and we need to deliver a lot better at home against Oyonnax in the next match. At least there’s a chance for us.”
And at least there’s that.