Simon Lewis looks at the shortcomings that led to the province’s defeat by Racing 92.
The reasons for Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat were glaringly obvious. A very, very good opening half from Racing 92 in the Bordeaux sun and a desperately poor response from Munster in that opening period created a perfect storm for the rampant Parisians that made the outcome a foregone conclusion by half-time.
For the second season in a row in a European semi-final, Munster have been blown away by more accomplished, more powerful and, in many cases, more skilful individuals and by squads with greater resources and strength in depth. Against Saracens in Dublin 12 months ago, they faced a team at the peak of its powers, destined to successfully defend the Champions Cup and with a defence which soaked up everything a one-dimensional Munster attack could throw at them.
On Sunday at Stade Chaban-Delmas, Racing were so dominant in that first period that Munster never had a chance to disconnect the kitchen sink, never mind throw it at their opponents. The ease with which the Parisians got over the gainline for phase after phase was astonishing and the missed-tackle count shocking, slipping to a 66% completion rate at one point in the first half. Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas repeatedly cut a swathe through Munster’s defensive line and there were some harsh lessons for new defensive coach JP Ferreira.
In attack too, Munster failed to rise to the occasion. Scrum-half Conor Murray cut a frustrated figure, while fly-half Ian Keatley had one of his poorest afternoons in a long while and wing Keith Earls must have wondered why he bothered working so hard to get back to full fitness, so little did he see of the ball.
The sight of Keatley and Rory Scannell attempting drop goals in front of the posts as half-time approached, having rejected a shot at the posts off the tee for an easier three points, was baffling and one can only assume they believed referee JP Doyle was playing a penalty advantage. The failure to score a try in that period was critical to the final scoreline. It meant Munster trailed 24-3 at the break and had a mountain to climb. Had they taken seven points back to the dressing rooms, a 24-10 game would have completely changed the respective mindsets for the second half. It pointed to an ongoing failure to breach top-level defences.
Munster’s strength in depth this season has been undermined by injuries in key positions. Midfield has been a major concern all season since Jaco Taute succumbed to a serious knee injury in late September. Dan Goggin suffered a similar fate earlier that month and was not seen again until February, while the loss of new signing Chris Farrell after both the November Tests until January and then midway through the Six Nations for the rest of the season was a desperate blow. As well as Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold have played, their status as the only two fit senior centres for the majority of the season, making 25 and 16 appearances, respectively, has been an immense workload which appeared to take its toll in Bordeaux.
It is with good reason that club captain Peter O’Mahony says he is sick of losing semi-finals and having to learn lessons from them. With no silverware since the Magners League title in 2011, Munster have come up short when it has mattered most: The PRO12 finals of 2015 and 2017 against Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets, respectively, and now two successive Champions Cup semi-finals. Sunday’s defeat to Racing 92 was a sixth losing European semi-final in a row since the second and most recent Heineken Cup victory of 2008.
The province is operating in an increasingly difficult financial climate with budgets rising in France and England, while population dictates that Leinster have the deepest playing resources in Ireland. Should Munster supporters accept that this is as good as it gets for their team?
A return to the PRO14 final next month would give their heroes a chance to prove the doubters wrong.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.