A chastening end to what has proved one of the most horrifically demanding and challenging seasons any group of players and management has ever had to endure.
Perhaps over the summer break Munster will look back on the notable improvements made in reaching the last four of the Champions Cup and Guinness Pro 12 final and realise that, in adversity, there was much to be proud of.
Incredibly, Munster only tasted defeat on four occasions in the 27 matches played since Anthony Foley passed away on the team’s Champions Cup sojourn to Paris last October. That tragedy has coloured and influenced everything that has happened to this squad since returning home on that gloomy Sunday evening over seven months ago.
That Champions Cup journey ended in unexpected fashion when the side progressed, against all the odds, to a semi-final date at the Aviva Stadium before being overpowered by eventual back to back winners Saracens. Given that the Londoners are widely acknowledged as European rugby’s leading club, there was no shame falling to a superior force at the penultimate hurdle.
Saturday’s Pro 12 final defeat, however, will hurt far more, not only because of the dominance the Irish provinces have enjoyed over their Welsh counterparts for well over a decade but because of the comprehensive nature of the loss. Having analysed how Scarlets ripped Leinster open at the RDS the previous week, Munster were forewarned but ultimately proved every bit as defensively vulnerable in the wide channels as Leo Cullen’s men in their semi-final.
Given that Munster boasted the best defensive record in the league coming into this decider, one had hoped they would be better able to cope. Incredibly they missed 25 tackles in all, 11 in the first half alone. For a team that hadn’t conceded more than three tries in any contest this season, to have leaked four before the break was a harrowing experience. They looked shellshocked.
As the only side to win at Thomond Park this season, Scarlets had no reason or inclination to carry any inferiority complex into this decider and it showed. Confidence levels have been brimming to the boil at precisely the right time of the season but, with 18 wins in their last 20 Guinness Pro 12 outings, that should not have come as a surprise to anyone.
What did surprise was Scarlets’ ability to survive Munster’s anticipated set piece assault despite the fact that their scrum remained vulnerable throughout. Munster’s expected dominance out of touch never materialised while they were totally outplayed at the breakdown where Scarlets generated a series of turnovers - 18 in total - or forced Munster into error.
Their ability to convert several of those turnovers into try scoring opportunities was sensational. Three tries and 24 points registered over an electric 13 minute period in the opening half alone left Munster chasing shadows. There was no way back.
For the second season in a row, the team playing the most positive rugby emerged victorious in the final with Scarlets passing and offloading game matching the attacking brilliance that drove Connacht to ultimate glory last season.
Quite how, on successive weekends in Dublin, Scarlets succeeded in forcing both Munster and Leinster into so many handling errors and the concession of so many turnovers - 27 in Leinster’s case - is testament to the pressure they applied with and without the ball. Every time they succeeded in creating a line break, the ball carrier had support options on his left and right shoulder and invariably made the right decision. Munster couldn’t match that despite the best efforts of Francis Saili, whose defensive vulnerability was exposed again, and Conor Murray. On one occasion the New Zealand-bound scrum half held up possession for several seconds, hoping for support to arrive but none came, forcing him to hurl the ball several yards backwards in an effort to retain possession.
The visitors back row trio of John Barclay, James Davies and Aaron Shingler completely dominated proceedings and laid the foundation for this immense win. To compete so favourably in the front five without Lions hooker Ken Owens and Welsh second row Jake Ball also caught Munster by surprise with former Leinster Academy graduate Tadhg Beirne having another storming outing. Munster could do worse than give him a call.
At the business end of both the Champions Cup and the Pro 12, Munster’s shortcomings in attack have proved costly, even if it was their defensive frailty in the wide, five metre, channels that ripped this contest from their grasp from an early stage.
The fact that a Welsh win is probably good for the Guinness Pro 12 league will be of no consolation to Irish rugby in what has proved a disappointing season right across the board. Connacht never recovered from a very poor start in the Pro 12 and, as a consequence, never looked like defending their title. Teams worked out their attacking strategy and succeeded in forcing them into error. A pretty hefty injury list didn’t help much either.
Ulster were probably the most disappointing of all the four provinces given the quality of backline they had to offer. Ultimately it was a lack of Ulithi and power in their front five that proved their ultimate undoing.
If Leinster could erase the last six weeks of their season, there would be plenty to be proud of. The manner with which they disposed of Wasps in their Champions Cup quarter-final suggested they were ready to dine at the top table in Europe once again but never really recovered from a very poor opening quarter in their semi-final against Clermont Auvergne in Lyon. They do have some quality young players coming through but need to reassess their approach to knockout rugby.
Munster wanted to win so badly, for so many reasons, on Saturday that it was surprising how inept they looked at times. That display was a very poor reflection of the progress made under Rassie Erasmus who, even in defeat, has proved a class act. He now has a full grasp of what is required to advance to the next level domestically and in Europe but may not have the resources to make all the desired alterations he would like to affect, an issue that impacts on all the Irish provinces.
What his inaugural season at the helm has shown is that he presides over a squad of considerable character, fortitude and resilience. That shone through in the manner with which they coped with the tragedy surrounding the loss of Anthony Foley. That will surely stand to them.
They may not have any silverware to show for their efforts over the last nine months but have won the support and admiration of the wider rugby community in the most difficult of circumstances.
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