Munster can only hope and pray that recent history will repeat itself over the course of the next seven months. If it does, they will be in Dublin on May 18 for the city’s first European final in ten years.
Those searching for the silver lining to the dirty clouds in Paris last Saturday can cling to the fact that Munster have been down this road before – losing the first match of the tournament, reaching the final and winning the whole shebang. They have done it not once but twice.
Losing a ten-point lead to the seventh-ranked team in France hardly amounted to a declaration of intent from the former European champions but it could have been worse.
Despite Racing Metro raining on their parade, Munster at least took a losing bonus point home which was more than they managed in Stockport at the same stage of the competition seven years ago.
Sale, aided by a try from Jason Robinson and abetted by six Charlie Hodgson goals, won 27-13. Munster, then under Anthony Foley’s captaincy, recovered to win their next eight European matches, a run climaxed by an unforgettable victory over Biarritz in the 2006 final at the Millennium Stadium.
They did it again two years later – same start, same finish, same venue. They recovered from losing the first match of the pool competition – 24-23 away to Wasps – and responded by overpowering all before them, including Toulouse in the final.
Then, of course, they were at the peak – a team equipped by a ruthless ability to win the big matches. That their starting XV in Paris last week contained only three survivors from the 2008 final said everything about Munster’s current state of transition.
Two of those three – Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell – had to be replaced long before the end which left Doug Howlett on his own from the run-on team which had conquered Europe five seasons earlier. That gives a graphic idea of the scale of Munster’s change of personnel in a short time. Nothing stays the same for long these days.
Had they not conceded the needless penalty four minutes from time which allowed Racing to repair the damage caused by Simon Zebo’s spectacular solo try, Munster would probably have contributed to a clean sweep for Ireland’s four provinces in the RaboDirect PRO12.
Ulster set the tone at Ravenhill on the Friday night with a thumping 41-17 win over Castres, good enough to make last season’s beaten finalists one of seven teams to start by claiming all five points alongside Saracens, Harlequins, Clermont Auvergne, Northampton, Toulon and Ospreys.
The reigning RaboDirect PRO12 champions matched Ulster try for try in beating Treviso at Swansea, a satisfying preparation for the second round this weekend and their almost annual collision with Leicester as arranged for Welford Road on Sunday afternoon.
After drawing a blank in Toulouse, the Tigers know they dare not fail again if they are to retain a realistic chance of qualifying for the last eight. When the Ospreys were last in Tigerville three seasons ago, they somehow allowed a commanding lead to dissolve into a 32-32 draw.
Leicester may have been pointless in France but, like Munster, they have a knack of dusting themselves down after falling at the first fence and going the full distance. Six seasons ago, for instance, they lost their opening European tie at home to, of all people, Munster.
O’Gara’s nailing of a long-range penalty gave the then defending champions a 21-19 win but Leicester recovered to win all five remaining pool matches and qualify for the knock-out stages as pool winners. From there, they ended up in the final only to be smashed by Wasps.
No English club has won the trophy since. Leinster have won three of the subsequent finals, Munster and Toulouse accounting for the others. The holders, aiming for an unprecedented three-in-a-row, extended their record unbeaten sequence but not in the manner which Europe at large has come to expect of them.
For once, Leinster had to rely on three Jonny Sexton penalties, their inability to score a try a tribute to the resilience of the Exeter Chiefs on their European debut.
According to the official ERC stats, Leinster had to make 168 tackles, considerably more than any of the other 23 teams in the competition.
Official figures put the Leinster back row trio at the top of the individual count – Kevin McLaughlin (20) followed by Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip with 17 each.
Exeter, by contrast, were obliged to make no more than 86 tackles in a match which kept the champions in suspense until the last kick, the Argentinean, Ignacio Mieres, failing to tie the scores at 9-9 from long distance.
Leinster are back in Llanelli on Saturday with a very different team to the one which conceded seven tries to the
Scarlets on the opening weekend of the RaboDirect season last month.
Edinburgh, semi-finalists last season, need something infinitely better this weekend after their 45-0 thrashing by Saracens at Murrayfield.
The task will be more difficult given that they will have to try and find it at, of all places, Thomond Park. Munster, hurting from their lapse in Paris, will be desperate to put their challenge back on an even keel even if they have to go about their business without O’Gara, who has made more appearances in Europe than any other player in the history of the tournament.
European team of the opening weekend?
15 Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues)
14 Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont Auvergne)
13 George Pisi (Northampton)
12 Gael Fickou (Toulouse)
11 Yoann Huget (Toulouse)
10 Charlie Hodgson (Saracens)
9 Paul Marshall (Ulster)
1 Soane Tonga’uiha (Northampton)
2 Richard Hibbard (Ospreys)
3 Census Johnston (Toulouse)
4 Tom Hayes (Exeter)
5 Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys)
6 Julien Bonnaire (Clermont)
7 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)
8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)