The ink on the published announcement that plans were already well advanced for a North v South final was barely dry on Friday when Van Graan’s team tripped up at their home ground of Thomond Park against their rival Irish province.

Munster, who beat Leinster on the opening weekend and were the early front-runners, started as favourites on the basis of their early competition form plus the big defeat suffered by Connacht against Leinster in the previous round.

But Munster failed to pull off a treble of victories against fellow Irish provinces in a physical and brutal derby in Limerick.

Although some of the Irish media felt that Van Graan might have something to complain about given the contentious points that cost his team the chance to go into the final two games with their fate in their own hands, the former Springbok and Bulls assistant coach refused to make excuses.

“Small margins in the game, one yellow card and one try meant we lost the game by four points,” said Van Graan.

“If one of those opportunities goes our way then we win the game. I am never going to make an excuse. I feel we were not good enough on the evening; well done to Connacht.”

Van Graan added that although it was getting tight in the battle to top the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup log, he will endeavour to use his squad to get the job done.

“We said there are lads who are going to get opportunities in the coming weeks and we are not going to change that because we lost to Connacht,” he said.

The defeat leaves Munster needing to win their remaining two games, against Zebre and Cardiff, while they will be requiring Benetton to trip up in one of their remaining games against Connacht at home and Ospreys away.

Conor Fitzgerald, who can claim Munster as his home province as that was where he was born and educated, punished Munster to the tune of 14 points in a game that saw five tries scored – three from Connacht and two from Munster.

Meanwhile on the same night Leinster, who many would have considered the favourites at the start of the competition, continued their recovery from their opening defeat to Munster by edging out Ulster in Dublin (21-17).

On a weekend where there were several close games, both of the Friday night Irish derbies saw winning margins of just four points.

If the Munster game was considered an upset so too was the one-point win scored by visitors Cardiff Blues against Scarlets in Llanelli.

It enables Cardiff to go into the last stage of the league phase of the competition level with Leinster and Connacht on nine points, five off the pace being set by Benetton and one behind Munster, Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors.

However, of the three teams lumped together on 10 points, Munster have a significantly better points difference and that could be meaningful if teams finish tied at the top.

Benetton won their home derby against Zebre to move to 14 points and after Munster’s defeat the Italian side is the only unbeaten team left in the northern competition.

The Vodacom Bulls are in a similar position in South Africa, with their thumping win over the Cell C Sharks in Pretoria on Saturday night maintaining their unbeaten record and putting them three points clear at the top of PRO14 Rainbow Cup SA log.

The DHL Stormers kept their faint hopes alive by scoring an exciting after the hooter win over the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg in a high scoring game.

At this point the magnitude of their win over the Cell C Sharks, coupled with their championship pedigree – they won Vodacom Super Rugby Unlocked and the Carling Currie Cup last season – means the Vodacom Bulls have taken control at the halfway stage of the Rainbow Cup SA.

Weekend Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup results

Munster 20 Connacht 24
Leinster 21 Ulster 17
Scarlets 28 Cardiff Blues 29
Benetton 34 Zebre 27
Edinburgh 24 Glasgow Warriors 31
Dragons 26 Opreys 42