Gerry Thornley: Munster could yet find a pot of gold at end of Rainbow Cup
Province still have something to play for, albeit it would be nice to know what exactly
Munster’s Fineen Wycherley and Andrew Conway celebrate with Conor Murray after he scored a try against Ulster in the Rainbow Cup at Thomond Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Two rounds into the Guinness Pro14 Rainbow Cup and it says everything about this hotchpotch of a competition that the protagonists, not to mention the rugby public at large, still don’t know how it is intended to pan out.
The organisers having divided the competition into northern and southern sections on foot of the South African teams not being permitted to fulfil their scheduled fixtures in Europe, it seems utterly incredible that a revised format, with fixtures, has still not been confirmed.
The fixtures for Rounds 4, 5 and 6 have already been scheduled and provided to the 12 European clubs, and apparently will proceed save for the removal of the South African teams, and kick-off times may be altered ahead of being made public.
If so this means that each of the 12 teams from across Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales will now play five “group/pool” matches instead of six, against random opponents. This in turn will mean another blank weekend in the rounds where they were due to host one of the South African quartet in addition to the weekend after next, when La Rochelle and Toulouse meet in the Heineken Champions Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday May 22nd.
Hence, for example, after hosting Ulster this coming Friday, Leinster may be idle for consecutive weekends as they were pencilled in to host the Bulls at the RDS on Friday, May 29th. They will then complete their “pool” matches with a trek to Glasgow before hosting the Dragons.
Munster, who lead the 12-team “table” alongside Benetton on nine points, will host Connacht this Friday before seemingly completing their fixtures at fortnightly interludes at home to Cardiff and away to Edinburgh.
According to the schedule issued to the clubs, after Friday’s trip to Limerick, Connacht will be away to Benetton and then finish up a week later with a home game against the Ospreys.
After facing Leinster away, Ulster will host the Scarlets a fortnight later before finishing up their schedule a week ahead of most others with a trip to Edinburgh on June 5th.
Having lost their opening two games, these are effectively three dead rubbers for Dan McFarland’s team, but as with a Guinness Pro14 run-in diminished by the absence of play-offs, there will be plenty more meaningless games before the final on June 19th.
Apparently the plan is to have the final contested between the team which finishes first in the “northern” section against the table toppers in the South African round robin as a precursor to the hoped for, and full on, 2021-22 Guinness Pro16.
Plans for the inaugural cross-hemisphere competition are at an advanced stage and the likelihood is that next season’s Pro16 will feature two pools of eight, wherein each team plays the other seven teams at home and away, with additional return derbies worked into the schedule.
Meanwhile, as for the Rainbow Cup, the €6 million in TV monies having been assured to the dozen European teams, though not yet dispersed, tournament organisers and broadcasters are keen for this north v south final to happen on June 19th and are exploring the possibility of a venue in Italy.
Should this come to pass then effectively the dozen northern hemisphere sides will be competing for just one spot rather than two. This in turn would mean that if either Munster or, less probably, Benetton win their remaining three games, none of the others can catch them.
If Covid-19 protocols and government measures again prevent a South African team from travelling to Europe then there will be a northern final between the top two teams in the table.
Hence the teams in the “northern” section of the Rainbow Cup could be competing for either one place or two in the final.
If it’s the latter, then fortunately as only Munster and Benetton have won their opening two games, should either of them lost one of their remaining three matches that could open the door for one of the eight teams who have won victory out of two matches thus far.
Ulster have now lost three in a row to Connacht, Leicester and Munster, a first such run under McFarland
That would offer some element of competitiveness to the remainder of the tournament. Viewed like this, next weekend’s ties featuring Dragons v Ospreys, Scarlets v Cardiff and Edinburgh v Glasgow are – cue drum roll – knock-out ties, or Rainbow Cup, “northern” section eliminators.
Connacht, meanwhile, must beat Munster away at Thomond Park to retain any tangible interest in reaching the final. Failure to do so, akin to the three losers from this weekend’s aforementioned derbies in Wales and Scotland, would render their remaining two games meaningless.
That is a fate which has already befallen Zebre and Ulster, whose season is effectively over after running aground. Having won 16 of their first 20 matches, Ulster have now lost three in a row to Connacht, Leicester and Munster, a first such run under McFarland.
Unlike in the defeats by Connacht and Leicester, when in winning positions at various junctures, their limp showing in Thomond Park last Friday when bullied off the pitch suggested they were suffering from a Welford Road hangover.
That European Challenge Cup semi-final loss was a body blow, for with no Leinster in the frame it represented a real opportunity to end their 15-year trophy drought. What’s more, with the South Africans scheduled to come aboard a Pro16 next season, it’s hard to see that drought ending any time soon, or of them salvaging much from the remainder of the Rainbow Cup.
It’s in marked contrast to Munster’s response to those debilitating back-to-back defeats by Leinster in the Pro14 final and Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup.
The fixtures have fallen nicely for them, with two-week interludes before facing Leinster and Ulster, and look as if they will continue to do so. Nonetheless, it was good to see players like JJ Hanrahan and Rory Scannell providing reminders of their qualities, and the offloading and interplay were of a team that are playing with the shackles off.
The format is a little farcical. Not everyone plays everyone else and some will have three home games and others two. Dead rubbers will abound. But unlike a good chunk of the contestants after next weekend, Munster still have something to play for, albeit it would be nice to know what exactly.