Edinburgh’s impressive win over Glasgow Warriors in the first match of the Saturday double header effectively left Munster needing to beat Leinster to retain any interest in the top position on the final Conference B log.
They fell tantalisingly short.
Munster do still have an outside interest because they are five points – or one bonus point win – behind Edinburgh, but something freaky is going to have to happen on the final weekend to wipe out Edinburgh’s big advantage in points differential for the current leaders to drop a position.
Instead of reaching for the top, Munster coach Johann van Graan and his team are now looking nervously over their shoulders at Welsh team Scarlets, who moved within range of the Irish province on the log with their big win over Cardiff Blues in another game on Saturday.
If Scarlets win their derby against the Dragons at Newport on Saturday – and collect a bonus point in the process – it will leave Munster needing a bonus point against Connacht on Sunday if they are to go to the semi-finals.
That semi-final will be a return fixture against the Leinster team that pipped them 27-25 in an exciting game at Aviva Stadium at the weekend, something that will not sit well with Van Graan as it has been some time now since they last beat Leinster.
Indeed, it’s been a while since any team has beaten Leinster, who now boast a 22-match winning streak across all competitions they participate in.
On another level though there was something more positive for the former Springbok assistant coach to work with. There was plenty of indication during his team’s narrow defeat that if they produce their best rugby, they could just have the beating of their arch-rivals on a given day.
Indeed, had JJ Hanrahan kept his good goal-kicking form up when he had a conversion opportunity that would have levelled the scores with less than seven minutes left, the derby could well have seen Leinster’s winning run brought to an end.
And given how impregnable the Leinster fortress has been in recent times, that is certainly something to cling to.
On the evidence of the Aviva Stadium derby, Munster should consider quickening up their tempo. It was when they were recycling the ball quicker and upping the pace of their game later in the second half that Munster started to trouble the previously bothersome high press Leinster defence system.
Up to just ahead of the hour mark the Leinster defence had been pressuring the Munster ball carriers into error with seeming impunity, but after that it changed, with Munster fighting back with two tries in that period and nearly wiping out what had been an 11-point deficit.
The much talked about debuts of Springbok Rugby World Cup winners RG Snyman and Damian de Allende would have been much less a talking point after the game than they were beforehand.
Snyman left the field after just seven minutes after injuring his leg falling awkwardly at a lineout, while De Allende had a quiet game compared to his brilliant form last year in Japan.
Instead, the South African interest – in terms of players who shone – was provided in the Scottish derby that preceded the Aviva Stadium game, with the Edinburgh halfback duo of Nic Groom and Jaco van der Walt leading the charge.
The latter won the man of the match award for his kicking and game management, but it was Groom’s brace of tries that put his team on the path to victory.
Edinburgh showed excellent form on the resumption in what was a top-quality Scottish derby that confirmed the switch in balance of rugby power in Scotland.
While Edinburgh have a home semi-final to look forward to – it really is hard to see them being denied that now – and Europe beyond that, the Warriors have nothing to play for in the return derby on Friday night and will be going afterwards into an off period before the start of the 2020/21 season.
It was a weekend that delivered on and maybe even exceeded expectations for those who have waited patiently for the Guinness PRO14 to return. The absence of crowds because of the coronavirus restrictions didn’t appear to detract from the drive and motivation of the players, who sometimes celebrated tries like they had won a final.
The aesthetic quality of the games was also generally high. There were mistakes but those were to be expected as teams returned to playing after more than five months of hiatus and without even playing a warm-up game.
There were some excellent tries, lots of slick passing and handling, and the games might well have been an advert for the positives that could be derived from having summer rugby in the northern hemisphere.
Benetton 13 Zebre 17
Scarlets 32 Cardiff Blues 12
Glasgow Warriors 15 Edinburgh 30
Leinster 27 Munster 25
Ospreys 20 Dragons 20
Connacht 26 Ulster 20
Round 15 fixtures
Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors (Friday, 20h35)
Dragons v Scarlets (Saturday, 18h15)
Ulster v Leinster (Saturday, 20h35)
Munster v Connacht (Sunday, 16h00)
Cardiff Blues v Ospreys (Sunday, 18h00)
Zebre v Benetton (Sunday, 20h00)