Connacht Rugby concluded the 2019/20 season having achieved their primary ambition to retain Champions Cup status.
It may not have been the desired result on which to end the season, but the 49-12 defeat to Munster at the Aviva on Sunday will provide coach Andy Friend and his squad with a clearer picture of the road Connacht must take in preparation for another season of top level European rugby.
And it will not be easy, but certainly exciting, given the new format European Rugby bosses have developed specifically for the 20/21 season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Twenty-four teams will contest the expanded competition, divided into two pools of 12 - to be decided by a draw. Each team will rated as tier one, two, three, or four - the top and second ranked team from each league - English Premiership, French championship, and the PRO14 - will make up tier one; teams ranked three and four in each championship make up tier two; teams ranked five and six will be in tier three, and teams which finished in seventh and eighth place in their respective leagues will make up tier four. Tier one teams will then be pooled with tier four; tier two with tier three; and only teams of different leagues play one another, home and away.
As a result Connacht, which finished the PRO14 as the seventh qualifier, will be a tier four team, and will face the top teams of the English and French championships. At present, based on those leagues, it could be English outfits Sale and Exeter, and French sides Bordeaux-Begles and Lyon. Two matches will be at home and two away.The top four finishers in each pool qualify for the quarter-finals (home and away ), while the next four will qualify for the round of 16 in the Challenge Cup, which will hold a preliminary stage. The competition will start on the weekend of December 11/12/13.
It will provide Connacht with a huge incentive when they return to training after a week's break following the official end of their PRO14 season. While not the best performance, it was more about the future for this new-look Connacht side, playing under new rugby laws.
Certainly coach Andy Friend was unhappy with parts of that display, namely ill discipline. The concession of some 18 penalties (17 for Munster ), two red cards and a yellow determined the result, and in an often fractious contest, it was always the wilier Munster which held the upper hand.
Yet, this was a different Connacht XV, bar Eoghan Masterson, which took to the field after victory over Ulster. It was also a stacked Munster side, keen to fine-tune its performance ahead of the PRO14 semi-final meeting with Leinster tomorrow evening.
Connacht will be all the better for having given some debutants the opportunity, not least new recruit and No 8 Abraham Papapli'i who was red-carded for a shoulder to Conor Murray's neck - some 18 minutes after Conor Oliver had been sinbinned within seven minutes of the game's start. However, the New Zealander showed the potential that had attracted Friend to sign him, "a big bulking body that can dent opposition".
And there were positives, among them youngsters Colm de Buitlear, Niall Murray, debutante Diarmuid Kilgallen, and the hard-working Tom Daly.
But, says Friend, it was all over after Shane Delahunt also saw red on 35 minutes. - "Lose one player, it makes it very hard; once you lose two, you are gone."
And with two yellow cards issued to Munster's Peter O'Mahony and Tadhg Beirne late in the opening half, it was 13-aside for a period of time - demonstrating the somewhat bizarre nature of this game.
But there was little breathing room for Connacht after Munster grabbed a 21-0 lead, a penalty try was followed by a third after Delahunt's dismissal.
There was some respite during a period of controlled possession, led by captain Quinn Roux, and although he was denied a try by TMO, Bundee Aki battled over the line, with Conor Fitzgerald adding the extras for a much-needed morale boost on half-time.
Connacht were denied some early second-half chances before Munster added the bonus-point try - Beirne showing his class when slipping through the defensive line at pace. They added another two before Connacht replacement hooker Jonne Murphy barged over near the end - but it was of little consolation.
Friend, despite praising his team's courage and work ethic, was in no mood to airbrush the performance.
"What we need to do is become is a lot smarter, if we can add smarts to that, we become a really dangerous side. So, proud of their effort, they work hard, believe in what they are doing, believe in the jersey they are playing for, it's part of us now, but we just need to become a lot smarter.
"We have done a lot of good work over the Covid period. We built our fitness, our skill set and developed our game, but it means nothing if we keep giving away penalties, so we need to address that, really quickly, and get on top of that. If we can get on top of that, then we become a team that will get some good wins."
MUNSTER: S Daly; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan (R Scannell 60 ), C Murray (C Casey 57 ); J Loughman (J Cronin 48 ), N Scannell (K O’Byrne 56 ), J Ryan (S Archer 47 ); F Wycherley, T Beirne (B Holland 62 ); P O’Mahony (c ) (J O’Donoghue 56 ), C Cloete, CJ Stander (J O’Sullivan 60 ). Yellow Cards: O’Mahony and Beirne 40.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran (B Aki 24 ); C de Buitléar, S Arnold, T Daly, D KIlgallen (J Murphy 40 ); C Fitzgerald (C Dean 57 ), C Blade (S Kerins ); P McAllister (M Burke 60 ), S Delahunt, D Robertson-McCoy (C Kenny 45 ) ; N Murray (U Dillane 52 ), Q Roux (c ); E Masterson (S Masterson 52 ), C Oliver, A Papali’i. Yellow Card: Oliver 7; Red cards: Papli’i 25, Delahunt 35.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU )