Well if you thought that the defeat in Galway was as bad as it could get for Munster over the festive season, you’d have thought wrong. Very wrong.
Last Saturday’s 26-point reversal to a rampant Ulster was, in every possible sense, a night to forget for a team which, just a fortnight ago, was sitting pretty at the top of the Magners League.
Sport can also provide the sort of long weeks that politics is more traditionally associated with. From a Munster perspective, that remarkable face off with the All Blacks already feels like half a season ago.
It’s been a tough fortnight for Foireann na Mumhan, something they’re not used to and how they’ll measure up over the next two Fridays (away to the Ospreys and home to Sale Sharks) should be intriguing.
Defeat at the hands of a very clinical, error-light Ulster was surely the worst display on home soil for over a decade, the first loss in 14 years to another Irish province in Thomond Park.
Coincidentally, the other famous domestic unbeaten run, which Leicester brought to an end in the Heineken Cup here two years ago, also featured Ian Humphreys in opposing colours on a chilly January night.
In two games against weaker opposition, at least within the professional lifetime of the union game, Munster have mustered just a single try.
Quite how it’s gone so wobbly so quickly is a tad mysterious, but it’s worth pointing out that they’ve lacked conviction in quite a few victorious outings this term, particularly against Clermont Auvergne. Maybe I’m quibbling too much, but there’s no avoiding that sentiment.
Of late, Munster have lacked continuity in open play, they’ve lacked solidity in the set piece, been second best at the breakdown and made as many unforced errors in the past two matches that they’d normally leak in a half-dozen. The men in red are, without doubt, in the midst of a slump.
“When things are running your way, you seem to get all the bounces of the ball and calls, but when you’re not playing that well you don’t seem to get them,” said Munster coach Tony McGahan.
And he had a point, which nonetheless didn’t conceal how underwhelming his team performed against an excellently drilled Ulster outfit.
Both the visitors’ first half tries had a touch of good fortune about them, as Paddy Wallace touched down having clearly received a forward pass slung by hooker Nigel Brady in the sixth minute.
Ulster’s second try, registered by Darren Cave after a lovely kick from Ian Humphreys, saw the ball bounce between Rua Tipoki and Doug Howlett and gratefully into the onrushing grasp of the outside centre.
On another night, the ball could just as easily have hopped the other way and into touch and spared the Kiwis some blushes, but not on this particular night.
There was, however, no arguing over the third Ulster try on the stroke of half-time, when Humphreys caught his own Garryowen and offloaded to the all-action replacement Mark McCrea, who did the rest.
Sixteen points down at half-time and deprived the services of the injured Ronan O’Gara and Rua Tipoki, the exasperated home support hoped for better in the second half.
That hope soon evaporated after McCrea made a monkey out of Kieran Lewis with a delightful chip over his opposing wing’s head, which he surged onto, setting up the platform for Tom Court to score.
Remarkably, with over a half hour remaining, all Munster had left to play for was pride. To their credit, they plugged away without too much reward, but Doug Howlett’s 64th minute try at least gave the home fans something to cheer about.
But the Munster performance was best illustrated in the 73rd minute when Alan Quinlan found himself just a few yards from the Ulster posts.
The ball spilled from the Clanwilliam man’s mitts and was booted downfield, where Denis Hurley was in place to gather the ball – or so we thought.
The Munster full-back sidefooted the ball back into the goal area and tapped down – conceding a five-metre scrum which led to Ulster’s fifth try, touched down by Andrew Trimble after a superb dink from Humphreys.
In a matter of moments, what could have been a Munster try had yielded another five points for the visitors, who could scarcely have envisaged winning so easily at Fortress Thomond.
In the end, the 37-11 win for Ulster was richly deserved, as they were on top in all facets of play, had the more harmonious half-back partnership and were thoroughly on top in the pack, driving Munster backwards repeatedly.
“The great thing about sport and the great thing about rugby is this week gives us an opportunity to go forward and get a result [in Swansea],” said a stoical McGahan.
“We haven’t become a bad side overnight. This week gives us an opportunity to get back on track, work hard and get through it…
“Confidence is one of those things – you don’t know where it goes, you don’t know where it comes from. All we need to do is galvanise together and work hard and you’ll get there.”
Now it’s important not to hit the panic button – yet, a trap that quite few fans have already fallen into on a few internet message boards this week.
Many a Magners League display in recent seasons have been filed in a folder marked ‘underwhelming’, but that cannot conceal the fact that Munster simply aren’t playing well at the moment.
Some of their general play of late has been reminiscent of Ireland’s during the World Cup – plagued with the sort of mistakes that your average junior player would be panned for.
So attempting to figure out why the basics in play have been so awry during the Christmas period isn’t exactly open and shut stuff. But it’s got to be sorted out and fast.
It should also be pointed out that Munster remain just a point behind the Ospreys and are in control of their own Heineken Cup destiny.
Should the next two matches prove as painful to watch as the past two have for Munster fans, then the aforementioned panic button might be justly pressed into action. But not yet.