RACING 92 27 MUNSTER 22
By Simon Lewis, Bordeaux
Key moment: The writing was on the wall for Munster when Racing wing Teddy Thomas generously spurned a hat-trick try on 22 minutes to gift Maxime Machenaud five points and put the French side 21-3 up but the Reds had the chance to go into the break with a morale-boosting try just before half-time. A penalty close to the Racing tryline offered hope with the scrum the chosen option and off first-phase ball, Conor Murray delivered the ball to Rory Scannell who crashed into contact, only for Racing centre Virimi Vakatawa to clamp over the ball and win a crucial penalty to end the opening period and crush Munster’s hopes of shifting the momentum.
Talking point: The dream of an All-Ireland final has gone as Racing dispatched Munster in the same ruthlessly efficient manner with which Leinster dismantled Scarlets in Dublin 24 hours earlier. It may not be the final for romantics in Bilbao on May 12 but there can be no question that the Champions Cup decider will be contested by Europe’s two best sides.
Key man: Teddy Thomas’s clinical finishing, Pat Lambie’s game management, and Virimi Vakatawa’s midfield powerhouse heroics were all outstanding, as was the tireless contribution from former Munster lock Donnacha Ryan but scrum-half Maxime Machenaud’s superb link play and goal-kicking topped the lot. A consummate performance on a day when Munster failed o rise to the occasion.
Ref watch: For all the misgivings about appointing an Irishman, the RFU-affiliated JP Doyle was hardly pro-Munster as the breakdown was at times reduced to a free for all. Doyle did take the sting out of a flashpoint early in the second half when Conor Murray could have seen yellow for raising a hand to Virimi Vakatawa’s face but he and his TMO instead penalised the Munster scrum-half for lifting and dropping Marc Andreu as they scrapped for the ball.
Penalties conceded: Racing 13 Munster 8
Injuries: Substitute prop John Ryan lasted just 17 minutes before the tighthead limped out injured in the second half but aside from that there were no apparent injuries to the rest of the Munster squad.
Next up: The European dream may be over but Munster return to Thomond Park next Saturday for the final round of the Guinness PRO14 league campaign. With second place in Conference A and a home quarter-final in the play-offs next month already secure, the visit of interprovincial rivals Ulster to Limerick provides a chance to avenge an embarrassing loss in Belfast on January 1 when Munster led 17-0 at half-time but then saw Fineen Wycherley sin-binned and Sammy Arnold before going down 24-17.
Racing 92 ripped the Munster defence to shreds with three tries in the opening 21 minutes to set up an eventual 27-22 win at Stade Chaban-Delmas that sealed their second Champions Cup final appearance.
Runners-up in 2016, the French giants will meet unbeaten Leinster in the decider in Bilbao in three weeks' time, while Munster return to domestic matters after suffering a stinging sixth European semi-final defeat since 2009.
Any thoughts of an all-Irish final quickly evaporated in the 28-degree Bordeaux heat, the travelling Munster hordes left reeling by Teddy Thomas' blistering brace of tries and a Thomas-created third converted score from Racing captain Maxime Machenaud.
The deficit was 24-3 at half-time, Ian Keatley and Machenaud trading penalties as Racing, who had lost three of their last meetings with the Irish province, continued to be ruthlessly efficient. Former Munster lock Donnacha Ryan was a central figure.
A Machenaud penalty took his haul to 17 points before his future club-mate Simon Zebo's 63rd-minute try sparked a revival which yielded further scores from Rhys Marshall (75) and Andrew Conway (80), closing the gap to five by the final whistle.
It looked ominous for Munster when they fell behind after just four minutes. Camille Chat's overthrow blew Racing's first attacking opportunity, but their forwards' powerful carrying teed up winger Thomas, who handed off Alex Wootton to score in the right corner.
Machenaud's excellent conversion made it a seven-pointer, and while CJ Stander and Stephen Archer won penalties either side of an encouraging counter attack from Wootton and Andrew Conway, Munster's decision-making was visibly off.
Fly-half Keatley had a poor start, missing touch from a penalty and having a drop-goal attempt charged down. Rory Scannell was wide with a subsequent drop, but Keatley got Munster on the board when punishing a Leone Nakarawa offside in the 16th minute.
Thomas was celebrating his second try soon after, his international colleague Virimi Vakatawa doing the damage with a superb surge from halfway, handing off Jean Kleyn in the process, and giving the 24-year-old speedster a simple run-in.
Racing's hulking forwards continued to flood over the gain-line, splintering an already overworked Munster defence, and Thomas brilliantly stepped inside two defenders to gift Machenaud a 21st-minute try, unselfishly passing to the scrum-half behind the posts.
Munster's reliable players were letting them down, two key lineouts going astray with Yannick Nyanga pinching one, and a series of attacks deep in the Racing 22 - with the interval approaching - were foiled with all-action centre Sam Arnold held up close to the posts.
Machenaud's metronome right boot extended the lead with a penalty just two minutes into the second half, and Munster's misery continued when a Rhys Marshall try was ruled out after he had run into referee JP Doyle.
With injured opensides Chris Cloete and Tommy O'Donnell keenly missed, the province were second best at the breakdown too, a rare error from Racing seeing a Machenaud penalty come back off the crossbar.
The Racing-bound Zebo lifted spirits with a high-quality finish past two defenders, equalling Anthony Foley's Munster record of 23 European Cup tries, as Johann van Graan's men took advantage of Marc Andreu's sin-binning for successive offsides.
JJ Hanrahan was wide of the target with the conversion and after fellow replacement Robin Copeland, who had the try-line in his sights, was pulled back for a forward pass from Zebo, Racing duly slowed the pace of the game again.
To their credit, Munster kept plugging away and a lineout maul snaked over in the right corner with replacement hooker Marshall grounding the ball.
Hanrahan converted and also added the extras to Conway's try in the final play, the province's quarter-final hero touching down from a Zebo kick-through.