The heartache continues. This is six semi-final defeats in European competition since Paul O’Connell lifted the Heineken Cup in Cardiff ten years ago, writes Donal Lenihan.
The fact that this latest one at the penultimate stage in Bordeaux marks the third or fourth for a number of this squad including captain Peter O Mahony, Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Billy Holland and Simon Zebo makes it even more difficult to swallow.
If anything, the fact that Leinster took care of their side of the equation with such consummate ease on Saturday in attempting to set up an all-Ireland Champions Cup final may have heaped even more pressure on Munster.
In truth, they never got out of the blocks and, despite their fall off in the final quarter of the game, Racing 92 have the capacity to make life difficult for favourites Leinster in what promises to be a cracking final in three weeks’ time.
If Leinster copper-fastened their place in the decider on the back of a masterful opening half of rugby, then Racing employed the exact same blueprint in fashioning a commanding 21-point lead in what proved a disaster period for Munster.
For whatever reason, Munster have been guilty of being very slow out of the blocks in all their recent games against Toulon, the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs but none proved as costly as their amazing defensive collapse in that opening half.
For a side that carried the best defensive record in the tournament into this contest, conceding only nine tries in their seven Champions Cup outings to date, to leak three tries in the opening 23 minutes was calamitous.
To make things worse, when they worked their way back into scoring positions, on the back of a series of penalties conceded by Racing in their own 22, Munster were unable to take advantage due to uncharacteristically poor execution.
In so many ways this was such an untypical Munster performance. Opting for three five-metre attacking line outs from close in penalties, Munster suffered a major systems failure.
Much of the credit here must go to the Racing 92 coaching staff and, one suspects, Donnacha Ryan, for taking the brave option to attack Munster in the air on those key Munster throws rather than concentrate their manpower on the ground to repel the maul. That decision worked spectacularly well.
Racing also chose to gamble with their front five selection, opting for greater mobility with both props Cedate Gomes Sa and Eddie Ben Arous and by switching the offload king Leone Nakawara from the back row to second row.
Their workrate around the field in terms of carrying and in the contact area after the tackle paid rich dividends. It also helped that in their period of dominance in the opening 30 minutes there were only two scrums, both resulting in Munster penalties.
When Munster failed to score off an attacking scrum on the stroke of half-time (Rory Scannell adjudged not to have released in the tackle), the Racing players pumped the air in delight. They knew exactly just how significant that moment was. A 21-point lead was never going to be overturned in this searing heat.
To their credit Munster never threw in the towel - they never do - but Leinster will have noted how Racing were the ones who appeared to fall off the pace in the final quarter. Munster responded with three unanswered tries that finally saw them draw within five points of the victors. Unfortunately, it was a case of too little too late.
On the final whistle, Munster were the ones left in the lonely huddle on the halfway line, with their captain Peter O Mahony searching valiantly for some words of consolation, as Racing 92 stood to accept the applause from the typically sporting Red Army.
No surprise when Ryan was afforded special status despite the fact that his performance, as it did in the pool game last January in the U Arena, impacted hugely on Munster’s chances of advancing.
What will hurt Munster most is that they lost this without ever coming anywhere near their best. Apart from the scrum they were second in all of the key facets of play. When they look back, I think that it will hurt even more that two of the province’s favourite sons played a massive role in this latest semi-final setback.
Ronan O’Gara may be thousands of miles away in the South Island of New Zealand but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the defensive structure and organisation that he was so instrumental in bringing to the Parisian club came back to bite his beloved Munster on this occasion.
When the game was a contest, the Racing defense proved impregnable. When Munster fought valiantly to get back into the game, the Racing defenders hunted in packs, their communication was excellent and they trusted each other.
O’Gara had worked hard to establish that structure and belief and, unfortunately, from a Munster perspective, it paid dividends yesterday. That coupled with their accuracy at the breakdown and their ability to isolate the Munster ball carrier and force them into a turnover or a penalty concession was crucial.
The other was Ryan’s influence at the lineout. I would guess that he was the one that put the foundations in place as to how to go about thwarting his former team-mates lineout maul. It wasn’t as if Munster didn’t get enough opportunities but, on the biggest day of all, their execution was well short of the mark.
It was also unusual to see an element of panic enter their game so early.
Two drop goal attempts from Ian Keatley and Scannell at a time when Munster were putting Racing under pressure in their 22 in the opening half looked ill-advised at best. One sensed that Racing knew they had Munster in a serious bind.
Munster also forced far too many passes, looking for the miracle moment that might just spark a revival and despite those late tries, it never came. So for new coach Johann van Graan it’s back to the drawing board as Munster look to the Guinness Pro 14 for some form of consolation and a chance to bridge the long drought for silverware.
For Leinster, meanwhile, the opportunities appear endless.
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