Munster may have fluffed their lines on the pitch on Saturday but the party line was rattled off effortlessly by those players wheeled out afterwards to explain the almost inexplicable manner of their loss to Scarlets on Lansdowne Road.
A disappointing end to a season of real promise. Beaten by a better team on the day. Didn’t make it easy for ourselves. Need to suck the loss up, regroup and return next season with an eye on building on the progress made.
You couldn’t argue with any of it, per se, but Billy Holland just couldn’t voice the script written for him when asked if all that good work banked in Rassie Erasmus’s first season in charge would act as a salve to the hurt over the summer.
“I’ve been told to say yes but, right now, no. In a couple of weeks when we come back to pre-season, we’ll see where we’ve gotten to over the season and there has been a huge amount of progress made, but at the end of the day, I’ve another silver medal in my back pocket, which is not what I want. And you look at all the hard work we’ve put in over the season, it is a disappointing end. So it’s a tough one.”
You could look at this harshly and argue that Munster has made little or no progress from the side that lost to Glasgow Warriors side in Belfast in the PRO12 final three years back. Then, as now, it was a case of a limited team losing to a swashbuckling one.
Rassie Erasmus can’t be blamed for that, of course. The South African has been officially at the helm less than 12 months and he has clearly injected a renewed sense of direction and purpose to the province. It’s no coincidence that they came up so short against a side that is in the third year of Wayne Pivac’s grand plan, Maybe Saturday was just a step too far and too soon.
“I wouldn’t say it was a step too far,” said Holland who has witnessed numerous ebbs and flows during his decade with Munster. “We need to evolve, we will evolve, we’ve only been at this - this is week 49 - so we will evolve over the summer, we will evolve next season.
“They were a better team. We were good enough to win but Scarlets just do what they do so incredibly well and they have really grown since they beat us during the Six Nations. They are a team with incredible confidence and I take my hat off to them.”
The narrative emerging from this defeat has already solidified into simplicity and that does no-one any favours. Yes, Munster are limited offensively but their vaunted defence crumbled at the Aviva, individual errors shot through the roof and their tactics were off.
Beaten at the breakdown and horsed out of it for Tadhg Beirne’s try, their trademark intensity and physicality was lacking and it was interesting that both Simon Zebo and Jaco Taute suggested the occasion had gotten to the team.
“We always had belief and our game has even grown from the Saracens game,” the South African centre explained at one point. “We maybe need to learn how to deal with the pressure moments and the big occasion better.”
All that can be fixed. The biggest step required now is obvious but tricky.
Munster flirted with a more expansive game under Rob Penney not so long ago but the offer of a mere one-year extension persuaded the Kiwi to cut the experiment short. Erasmus is less au fait with that brand of rugby but it falls to him now to embed it.
Or a version of it. And that won’t be easy given the Munster ethos and traditional strengths.
“It’s probably a mindset,” said Zebo, one of those players currently in situ who would surely be well-suited to such a dramatic change in emphasis. “Rassie knows it, we are capable of throwing the ball around as well. Decision-making is a big part of it as well as is ability to execute on the big day and trust. Big game players will develop into our squad now. They’re not there at the moment across the board but I’m sure we will get that in the next year or two.” A lot done, so much more to do.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved