On the eve of the new season its difficult to recapture the same optimism that preceded the previous two. Is there any reason to believe that things will be any better this time around? If we grovel to those we despise for tickets, spend on travel what hard earned cash the government doesn't take from us, risk our hearts and health on one last crusade, are we not just jutting our jaws out in childlike naivety to be kicked once more in the teeth?
On the surface of things, well, of course we are are. Before the season even starts fate has already told us in no uncertain terms that she is yet to fall for the Munster charms and will continue to deal us cards from the bottom of the deck. We are to be deprived of three international players for the first half of the season. Any team in Europe would struggle with the loss of David Wallace, Paul O'Connell and Anthony Horgan for six months. These are big, big players for Munster, all of whom have proved that they can stand and be counted at crunch time.
The question of whether or not to register all three for the Heineken Cup squad is a huge one. Does the new coach stick or does he twist, open the box or take the money? It appears that the first thing we will find out about Alan Gaffney is whether or not he is a gambler (or the diameter of his cajones for the cruder amongst us). This decision could be the making or breaking of our season, we can but hope that it will be the right one.
As well as players, we have also lost our leaders lest we forget. With Declan and Niall now championing a national cause we look to Alan and Brian to plot the downfall of some of Europes more cosmopolitan teams. Both come with solid reputations and Mr. Gaffney by all accounts has huge respect for the 'Munster Way' of doing things and wont attempt to fix what isn't broken. For all of Declans strengths, it's widely acknowledged that he was sometimes a little too loyal and slow to use the bench. The Gaffer (as he will surely become known) will come with little loyalty to individuals and this should be a huge incentive to the players who have been on the fringe for the last couple of seasons. They all have the ability and with the internationals all but out of the reckoning until Christmas, who knows what a run in the first team will do for their game.
The new signings too, give cause for optimism. Dominic Malone will compete with Mike Prendergast for a starting berth when we are deprived of our international number 9. Neither would look out of place in any European Cup side. Simon Kerr, whose impressive credentials make him look the pick of the bunch, will do battle with Marcus Horan for the unenviable task of stepping into the boots of a legend. The return of Eddie Halvey too represents a fine bit of business. Eddie enjoys somewhat of a cult status in these parts and he'll also play a huge role this season.
Looking at the groups we have drawn for both the Celtic League and The European Cup, its unthinkable that Munster would not emerge from both. The prior is a nice little tournament, which is invaluable for blooding players, but in all honesty, little more than an appetizer to the entrée of European competition. A group comprising Gloucester, Perpignan and Viadana is well within our capabilities. Three home wins are attainable as is a result in Italy. It's the away games in England and France that will sort the men from the boys in group 2. Home advantage in the European Cup this year, as always, is of gargantuan importance and could be the difference between a quarter final exit and another run to the final. This is surely the target for all in team Munster. History tells us that once this monster builds up a head of steam it is a difficult beast to contain. If we emerge top of our group, it's going to take one hell of an effort to stop us.
So once more unto the breach dear friends with the optimistic outlook we've become synonomous with. After all a Munster supporters glass is always more than half full. With just that drop of luck that's been denied us these past three years there's no reason to believe we cannot reach our grail. And if Jim can finally get his hands on the European Cup, we'll empty those glasses, sing like sailors, and cry like children.