THIS time two weeks ago Munster looked set for a double silverware assault on both the Heineken Champions Cup and the Pro14 title.
But a home European draw, followed by a home league defeat, means that they have relinquished their grip on both tournaments as they head into the extremely busy Christmas period.
The focus is clearly on the big back-to-back clashes against European Champions Saracens in the coming weeks, which is why such a weakened side was selected to face Edinburgh in Cork this weekend.
The second-string nature of Munster’s line-up will not in any way make up for the defeat, however.
To lose at home to a close Conference rival is a bad day at the office, no matter how you paint it.
Even a Munster win by less than seven points would have meant that Johann van Graan’s side would have finished the weekend eight points clear of their Scottish visitors.
The flip-flopping of these points means that Edinburgh are now just two points back, with Connacht sandwiched in between them, one point behind their Irish rivals.
Therefore the defeat was a lost opportunity in terms of taking a firm stranglehold on a Conference that Munster should 100% be topping come season’s end.
The top side in Conference B will not only get favourable home draws in the end of season play-offs, but crucially they will more than likely avoid having to win in the RDS if they are to make the Pro14 Final in Cardiff in May.
Munster’s European prospects had taken a serious denting the week before against Racing 92, when they could only muster two matchday points, for the hard-earned draw.
The simple European formula means you have to win your home games.
It is an absolute given now that Munster have to defeat Saracens this weekend to keep their dream of reaching the final in Marseilles next year alive, but the draw also means that they will have to win in either Allianz Park or the Paris La Defence Arena in Rounds 4 and 5 in order to progress.
Munster’s hopes may well hinge on how Saracens decide to manage their huge domestic league points deduction. Do they really think they can retain their European title while trying to preserve their Premiership Rugby status?
If they plan on fighting on both fronts then Munster could well be on the way out.
And if this was to occur, then the dropped points on Friday night at Musgrave Park will become even more frustrating, as we could well soon find ourselves in the scenario where all Munster’s eggs are nestled snuggly in the Pro14 basket, whether they like it or not.
In hindsight, Munster probably went a bit too deep for the Edinburgh encounter.
Fourteen changes from the Racing game was an awful lot, and when that is compounded by the loss of the released Alby Mathewson and the fact that the experienced Billy Holland was not started. Then Munster found themselves badly lacking in terms of street smarts, which duly meant they lost a game they will probably feel they were on their way towards winning when they led 16-10.
Munster’s back row turned up on the night for sure, with Jack O’Donoghue, Arno Botha and Tommy O’Donnell bringing the fight to the Scots, but the second-row pairing of Fineen Wycherley and Darren O’Shea will have been extremely disappointed that they did not take their opportunity to shine.
Holland was badly missed in the engine room.
Young Ben Healy would have loved to have had Mathewson in front of him for his debut.
The sight of another raw half-back alongside him, in the shape of Nick McCarthy, would not have helped his nerves.
In fairness to the north Tipperary outhalf he settled well after the early blunder for the first try and had kicked Munster into a winning position by the time he had left the fray.
At 20 years of age, he will get plenty more opportunities, although it has not gone unnoticed how well Bill Johnston is getting on at Ulster at the moment.
The former Munster man, another Tipperary native, is now getting regular game-time. Given his age profile — 23 in February — being allowed to leave the province may well look like a terrible piece of business in the near future. Especially when you despair at the sight of JJ Hanrahan kicking a free directly to touch, with what was essentially Munster’s last chance at rescuing the game.
We have highlighted, in recent columns, a number of poor decisions made by Munster players in recent weeks and months, but that one topped the lot.
The jury is still very much out on McCarthy. Being a ‘Leinster reject’ means he has to earn some trust from the fans, but the fact that Munster fans lost their beloved Mathewson due to his presence means that he will have to work even harder than normal players to earn this trust.
There also remains the theory that young Craig Casey is better than him anyway, and the clamour for the young Shannon man to get more starts is not going to go away anytime soon.
It is going to be incredibly tough for van Graan to juggle European and domestic duties over the coming months, although the next two weekends against Saracens will probably help Munster with their priority setting for the rest of the season.