Reigning Magners League Champions Munster are still a force to be reckoned with despite missing out on a Grand Final place – that’s the view of a former Ireland great.
The Red Army saw their defence of their Magners League crown come to a premature end after they were beaten 16-6 by Leinster last Saturday, just a week after losing to Biarritz in the last four of the Heineken Cup.
Those two defeats and a season without silverware have led many critics to dismiss Munster as a team of the past – a side with their best years behind them.
But while head coach Tony McGahan does admit that some members of his star-studded squad are the wrong side of 30, ex-Ireland fly-half Tony Ward doesn’t see any reason to panic.
Ward, who represented both Munster and Leinster during an impressive career that saw him win 19 caps for Ireland and one for the Lions, says that, although Leinster have now become Ireland’s dominant force, critics should write Munster off at their peril.
"Munster lost a match (and with it a title) but losing two semi-finals does not make for a system in decline,” Ward wrote in his column in the Irish Independent.
"The structures are too good for that. So bígí cúramach when writing the obituaries.
"A Munster team with Jerry Flannery, Paul O’Connell, Denis Leamy and David Wallace in situ is a very different competitive animal entirely.
"Leinster have assumed the Munster mantle but that does not by any means equal the end of the southern province as a European and Celtic League power …far from it.”
Ward has no doubt that Munster will be back challenging for honours again next season, just as they do every single year.
While the 2009/10 campaign may not have ended with a trophy, most other clubs in Europe would judge two semi-final showings in one season a huge success.
But if Ward is confident that we haven’t see the last of Munster as title contenders, he is just as certain that the balance of power in Ireland now resides in Dublin.
Leinster’s Play-Off win at the RDS was their fourth straight triumph over their great rivals and, although head coach Michael Cheika is bound for Stade Francais this summer, Ward believes the capital city outfit have plenty of reasons to be cheerful ahead of next weekend’s Grand Final.
"Last Saturday at the RDS, Munster were beaten more convincingly than the 16-6 scoreline suggests. Leinster were outstanding in completing a fourth competitive victory in a row over their great rivals,” added Ward.
"That the balance of power has shifted is beyond dispute. Aside from winning, the fact that they held Munster try-less in each of those four games will have pleased Michael Cheika, his players and backroom staff no end. And, irrespective of the outcome in the final against the Ospreys, Cheika will leave some legacy before departing for France.
"The best any coach can do with a squad is to leave it in better nick than he found it. Cheika has not alone done that but, in his time in charge, he has inculcated a winning culture built on a dog-tough mental and physical edge.”