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PART III: The Irish Challenge - Leinster are runaway favourites to come out on top again

As team-building exercises go, the gaffe that allowed every member of the Munster squad to dip into their inboxes and read what new coach Anthony Foley thought of them is more likely to find its way into the Book of Heroic Failures than any compilation of motivational masterstrokes.

Leinster celebrate winning the title in May
Leinster celebrate winning the title in May

The appointment of Foley, who earned immortality when he captained Munster to their epic Heineken Cup win over Biarritz in Cardiff eight years ago, was meant to mark a return to the old values of honesty and straight-talking, so it was just a tad inconvenient that his understanding of provincial attachments did not extend to email attachments as well.

In the aftermath of that howler, Foley's old Munster muckers have circled the loyalty wagons and declared that the leak could, perversely, have a galvanising effect on the squad as a whole. "It's disappointing from the Munster point of view that it got into the press," said Alan Quinlan, who clearly has a distance to travel on the journey towards understanding the obligations underpinning his new role as a paid pundit. "But that's the modern day with social media."

And yet, Quinlan and his like could just have a point. In their glory days - from, say, their first appearance in a European final, in 2000, to their last, in 2008 - there was a kind of us-against-the-world feel about Munster. They played a brand of hard, pragmatic, successfully rugby, founded on the principle that nobody ever filled a trophy cabinet with points for artistic impression. If derision encourages them back into that kind of huddle, then who knows what they could do with it.

Some people - though hardly the majority - have tipped Munster to return to the top of the Irish pile this season. That prediction may owe more to the impression that Leinster and Ulster might be taking backward steps at the moment as they try to cope with the loss of big and significant players, but it is also founded on a belief that Foley, so uncompromising a character on the field, will be able to project that quality from the coaching box.

"There was always a chip on the shoulder [at Munster] and that seems to have faded away a bit," said former Saracens and Leinster prop Paul Wallace. "From what I can see from the outside, they're looking to try and get that back. This could be a great opportunity for them."

It is worth remembering that Munster came achingly close to a couple of trophies last season. They pushed Toulon close in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup and then got within a point of derailing Glasgow's push to the final of the PRO12 in a pulsating match at Scotstoun. Had Glasgow had things a little easier at that point, the speculation is that they might have pushed Leinster closer in the final a couple of weeks later.

Ah, Leinster, that serial silverware collector of the modern era. There are those who wrote the Dublin side off in 2013 when they failed to get through to the last eight of the Heineken competition, but they were eating their words a few months later when, in quick succession, Brian O'Driscoll and his mates scooped up the European Challenge Cup and the PRO12 title - and added the British and Irish Cup for good measure.

Leinster, of course, have said a fond and tear-stained farewell to O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen, respectively their greatest player and most inspiring captain, but it would be unwise to dwell too much on the influence of those two.

Remember how they brushed Glasgow aside in last season's final? Well remember, too, that O'Driscoll lasted only a few minutes and that Cullen was not in the starting lineup.

More grievous losses seem to have been sustained at Ulster, where coach Mark Anscombe and director of rugby David Humphreys both left during the summer. The Belfast franchise have also lost some heavyweight front-five talent, with John Afoa and Tom Court heading for Aviva Premiership sides and Johann Muller retiring. On top of which, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace have both retired.

Recruitment? Modest all round. The days when Irish sides imported top-name southern hemisphere players in industrial quantities seem to be over. The only individual who comes with anything remotely close to a stellar name is former All Blacks full-back Mils Muliaina, although the fact he is joining Connacht suggests that he has his eye on his pension pot rather than any other trophy.

And yet, predictions of doom have been the backdrop to the start of the season for Irish clubs for the past decade, and still they keep delivering the goods. Leinster are runaway favourites to win the PRO12; if they do then many pundits believe they will have beaten Munster in the final. Ulster, in a period of readjustment, could struggle, although the mighty Rory Best, Muller's successor as captain, will shed blood to stop that happening.

No other sides will relish their trips to Ireland this year.

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