Munster are still one of the best teams in Europe says Stuart Barnes
Sky Sports pundit Stuart Barnes has warned supporters not to write off Munster's chances of lifting this year's Heineken Cup.
The 2006 and 2008 European Champions go into the weekend's opening round of fixtures on the back of a heavy defeat to Irish rivals Leinster.
But Barnes believes anyone suggesting that Munster's impressive Heineken Cup record is about to end would be nothing short of 'mad'.
"There will be people in Europe who'll look at last weekend's scoreline and say 'that's the end of Munster'," said Barnes, who is one of the game's most-high profile analysts having represented England and the Lions in an impressive playing career.
"They'd be mad - in the same way that it would have been mad to say that of Leinster when Munster beat them comfortably twice (last season).
"You have to consider Munster's record, and I've seen games in my 35 years watching and broadcasting where 30-0 scorelines have been turned around."
Munster travel to Franklin's Gardens to face English outfit Northampton Saints on Saturday evening, with critics suggesting that Saints' healthy home record and Munster's recent thrashing will make the Men in Red underdogs.
That would be an unfamiliar position for a side that have been one of the most-consistent teams in European competition and are currently ranked number one in the ERC standings.
But for Barnes, history and European pedigree still mean his money would be on Paul O'Connell and co returning from the East Midlands with yet another Heineken Cup victory.
"I still think they're favourites against Northampton," added the former Bath star.
"It will be very difficult, and fascinating to see how they perform, but one bad defeat doesn't make a bad team.
"They've earned that reputation, haven't they?"
Although Barnes still sees Munster as one of the most-dangerous teams in this year's Heineken Cup, he does admit that their one-sided loss to the reigning European Champs will give the likes of Northampton, Perpignan and Treviso hope ahead of the pool stages.
The 46-year-old feels Leinster's victory last weekend, and their triumph in last season's semi-final at Croke Park, has lessened the air of invincibility surrounding Tony McGahan's men.
"It sets it up for everyone outside Munster.
"I'm more interested in this game against Northampton than in any other Munster game apart from the finals because for the last four years Munster have taken something of a psychological grip - winning two finals and being red-hot favourites before last year's semi-final.
"Teams were looking at them and wondering, 'how do we beat them?' But now Leinster have given them such a mugging that Munster now have to get themselves up for the tournament - and people are looking at Leinster and thinking 'how do we beat them?'"
"'Fascinating' wouldn't be the word being used in Munster, but it is for the rest of Europe. It's an acid test for this group of players, because they've been very good at grinding out games. Now the boot's on the other foot and we have to see what O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara and company come up with when expectations are against them.
"Northampton away is a very tough game for Munster. If you asked who the two best teams in England are right now you'd say Northampton and London Irish, and if Munster lose this, after a 30-0 last weekend, then all their fabled ability to come back after a crisis will be tested to the full - especially with Perpignan in this group as well."
As part of the build-up to next month's Cardiff 2014 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals weekend, ERC has joined forces with the WRU, Cardiff Blues and adidas to develop an annual grassroots community rugby programme targeting young players.
The Ulster Rugby full back, Jared Payne (No 15), has been suspended for two (2) weeks following an independent Disciplinary Hearing in Dublin arising from the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Saracens at Ravenhill Stadium on Saturday, 5 April.