Three defeats on the trot to Llanelli, Neath Ospreys and Glasgow and facing a resurgent Ulster on Friday night, and if that wasn t all not bad enough, the aura of invincibility surrounding Thomond Park punctured and exit at the first hurdle in the Celtic Cup.
It s all looking rather bleak, isn t it? Well, this is a province that once walked out of Toulouse with its tail between its legs and a 60-19 defeat slouching its shoulders. Three years later they took on the aristocrats of French rugby in the forty-degree heat and light of Bordeaux and, in possibly the greatest performance of any side ever to participate in the Heineken Cup, gave their opponents a lesson in flair and finishing.
So, when one keeps that in mind, things aren t as bad, are they? In the late 90s humiliation in Stade Toulousain, Munster fielded more or less a full-strength side. In the recent run of defeats, the province has been introducing new talent and new faces, the next generation if you like, The newcomers include include current IRFU Academy members, Jody Danagher and Stephen Keogh ex IRFU Academy members Trevor Hogan and Jerry Flannery other Under 21 internationals in Martin McPhail, Conrad O'Sullivan and Eoin Reddan.
The World Cup squad selection was hardly a major boost for those who missed out. David Wallace, who was a surprising omission, wasn t his usual, exuberant self against Llanelli last month, though he did make some big hits. The continued exclusion of Mike Mullins from the international fold can t have helped the Old Crescent man s confidence either, though he seems to be coping extraordinarily well with his extended spell in the wilderness and scored a good try last time out against Glasgow and an equally good one against Neath Swansea.
In what is very much a transition period, the Munster management have also introduced a raft of new experienced faces to nurture the burgeoning talent delivered forth by the U19/21 system. New faces to the squad include David Pusey, the Australian who qualifies for Ireland through his Skibbereen born grandmother, Jason Jones-Hughes, and Shaun Payne who switch from the Welsh scene, Andy Long from Bath and then there is Christian Cullen who has yet to arrive), Flannery, Reddan. It s a wonder the players all know each other s names, let alone whether they like to take passes early or late, short or long or make tackles high or low. This was a little evident in the Llanelli game, when the Munster lineout suffered from a lack of coordination. It may prove, however, that time and lots and lots of practice is the best healer.
Injuries to key men haven t helped Alan Gaffney either. For the game against Llanelli, he text-messaged Killian Keane into unhanging his boots, having lost Dominic Crotty (meaning Staunton had to play at full-back), Holland (O Gara s understudy), and Conrad O Sullivan (pretender to the throne). Despite the lateness of the call and under the circumstances, Keane did well and Munster did even better to defeat a Leinster side that doesn t lose too often in Donnybrook.
If one wanted reason to be utterly downcast, the difficulty of Rotherham in coming terms with the exacting standards of the English Zurich Premiership may provide more ammunition. In Munster s best performance of the season, they took on the newly-promoted side in a challenge game in Thomond and beat them comfortably even in the absence of several key players, they racked up over twenty unanswered points when they had their strongest side on the pitch. But, if one were to insist on the glass being half-empty, that game served more as an indictment of Rotherham than an indication of how good Munster are.
Certainly, in their first competitive game, against Leinster, Munster were well below par and only ground out a victory by sheer will and force of habit. Whether this will, the ability to grind out wins after resounding comebacks and the knack of winning tight games will survive the current difficult run is something that will have disturbed the pessimist s sleep for weeks.
So as the pessimist hunches over his kitchen table in the small hours of the night, sipping some warm milk, he is also likely to reflect on the loss of Munster s eight-year unbeaten record at Thomond Park at the hands of Llanelli. There is no doubt that, on the balance of play, Munster did not deserve to win that game. Of course, concepts like balance of play, possession, territory, logic and reason have been given short shrift in the past, as Munster triumphed repeatedly against odds which even the most optimistic Munster-addict would have blanched.
However, to say that the imposing surrounds of Thomond Park will no longer frighten visitors is absurd. For a start, the Fortress Thomond moniker was a ridiculous slogan, an invention of a media trying to encapsulate something which is above mere words. Also, a defeat in the second game of the Celtic League, small beer compared to the Heineken Cup the provinces real business is hardly a definitive verdict. Leicester lost a friendly to Leinster a few years ago in Welford Road, yet it wasn t until Munster beat them there last season that the Midlands edifice was seen to crumble.
Three or four defeats on the trot in the Celtic competitions is no long-term pointer. The real judgment will be handed down in December and January. Then, we will know if the improved form of the Welsh clubs was more than just a fillip and whether memories of Thomond Park will continue to plague retirement homes all over Europe. Until then, the pessimist will keep sipping his milk, but the optimist will take heart from the youngster s as they grow into the side just as the current crop did not so many years ago. And lest we forget, the two defeats that Munster suffered were by a single score.
By a whisker. In the process they scored six tries. You see it s all about change. It s all about how that change is managed. Let s not reach for the panic button just yet.