To have had two sides within touching distance of a Champions Cup final appearance augurs well for the future but the manner of the defeats to Saracens and Clermont Auvergne over the weekend suggests that there is still a way to travel to match the halcyon days when Munster and Leinster shared five Heineken Cups over seven seasons.
Of the two Irish sides Leinster will have more reason for regret as they gave themselves a mountain to climb after allowing Clermont race into a 15 point lead in as many minutes.
Yet the fact that this French side have a difficulty in closing out games offered hope, especially when Leinster threw off the shackles after the break and carried the game to Clermont.
Whereas Munster could have no cause for complaint, Leinster will rue a 10 point turnaround on 55 minutes when an outstanding length of the field try by Dan Leavy was called back for a forward pass.
To add insult to injury Leavy was penalised for holding Aurelian Rougerie off the ball and punished from the subsequent kick.
This game was won and lost in that opening quarter when Leinster’s normally consistent line out was put under severe pressure and they also struggled at the breakdown.
The loss to injury of Jamie Heaslip and Sean O Brien finally caught up with them and despite flashes of excellence from Leavy, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan the collective effort of the Clermont back row proved highly influential on the day.
Leinster deserve massive credit for the manner with which the clawed their way back into the contest.
The key difference here as opposed to Munster’s effort the previous day was Leinster’s ability to create line breaks and try scoring opportunities, one such effort from Gary Ringrose offering Leinster a life line that unfortunately they were unable to take.
Indiscipline within range of the posts proved very costly along with the ability of Camille Lopez to seize the moment with an excellent drop goal. That said Leinster have so much to be proud of and with so many players in their ranks still in their early twenties will learn from this and adorn this stage again in the not too distant future.
Despite the bonus of playing at home on Irish soil, this semi final was always going to push Munster to the limit of their capability given the proven track record and quality of the opposition.
Getting out of their pool was an achievement in itself but Saracens are currently operating at a different level, one that Munster must aspire to at some stage in the not too distant future.
Saracens showed all the composure and class that has seen them dominate the English club scene for some time and latterly in Europe.
Playing in front of a fanatical Munster support, they appeared to thrive on the challenge and, even without the ball for long periods, never looked under pressure.
Munster enjoyed 65% of possession in the opening half yet had only three points to show for their efforts. That was never going to be enough.
Despite enjoying the majority of territory, Munster found it impossible the breach that ravenous Wolf Pack Saracens defence that refuses to offer up any cheap points to the opposition.
It didn’t help the Munster cause that, in their quest to dominate field position, they kept kicking into the backfield area covered by barnstorming Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola. He was like a magnet to the ball and had the ability to turn defence into attack by regularly powering through the first tackle.
Even when Munster got a foothold in the Saracens half of the field, they lacked the creativity and imagination to fashion the necessary line break. Time and again they pummelled the visitors line but on every occasion Saracens had the will and the organisation to repel them.
Surviving the ten minute period when Jackson Wray was in the bin, having received a yellow card for a high hit on Duncan Williams, without conceding a point, felt like a win for Saracens. The fact they converted a scrum penalty immediately on his return proved a huge psychological blow.
The worry at half time was that, having sized up what Munster had to offer in attack, Saracens would go for broke, just as the did against Glasgow in similar circumstances in the quarter final, and back their superior attacking game to put daylight between the teams. That is exactly what transpired.
The reigning champions took total control of proceedings after the break, lifted the pace and intensity of the game and simply wore Munster out.
But for a series of uncharacteristic handling errors from Richard Wigglesworth, Chris Ashton and Geore Kruis, Saracens would have been out of sight by the third quarter but ultimately those lapses proved no more than a temporary stay of execution.
When Tyler Blayendaal opted for a drop goal after a rare period of sustained second half Munster pressure with twelve minutes left, it was akin to an admission that they just didn’t have the attacking armoury required to break Saracens.
Bleyendaal’s crossfield kicks have proved hugely beneficial against lesser opposition throughout this campaign and Andrew Conway worked valiantly at the end of a number of those efforts but just couldn’t get the better of Alex Goode or Sean Maitland.
The set piece battle was ferocious from the outset with both sides enjoying their moments of scrum dominance. However Saracens made life very difficult for Munster out of touch by forcing them to throw the vast majority of their ball to to front of the line out thus limiting their attacking options.
In contrast they regularly delivered quality, off the top, ball from the middle and tail which enabled Mark McCall’s men to unleash a variety of intricate attacking power plays that had the Munster defence scrambling to close off.
Their are five Lions tourists in that Saracens pack for a reason and apart altogether from their set piece proficiency, it was their ability to completely slow down and stifle Munster’s delivery at the breakdown that stopped Peter O Mahony’s men from making any inroads on the scoreboard.
That afforded Saracens all the time in the world to set their defensive line with everyone positioned exactly where they wanted them.
The trust and understanding they bring to that phase of play is amazing to watch, even when operating under the most challenging of situations with Munster pummelling their line in the opening quarter.
he ball was far too slow in the recycle that on so many occasions Williams and Bleyendaal were left with no option but to kick.
Unfortunately a lot of those kicks were too deep and offered the chasers no chance to pressurise the receiver in any way on a day when the New Zealander found it very difficult to cope.
Munster expended so much energy, even when they were on top in that opening half for those paltry three points, it was inevitable that they wouldn’t have the gas to stay the course but there is no shame attached in losing to such a quality side. After a challenging and emotional campaign they reached their limit.
The reality of that situation was acknowledged by the magnificent Munster support in what must surely rank as the best losing response any side ever received in Lansdowne Road.
That was not only apt but absolutely deserved given everything this squad has endured this season to date. Hopefully there are better days ahead.