You can be sure Munster lock Billy Holland is not the only person trying to crack the secret of what it takes for his team to reach a Champions Cup final but he has been involved in enough last-four showdowns to know there is little margin for error once you get to this point in a European campaign.
No club’s followers have both revelled in and been heartbroken by the semi-final experience more than Munster’s Red Army, with Sunday’s visit to Bordeaux to play Racing 92 representing a record 13th visit to the penultimate stage of this prestigious competition.
Such a resumé indicates considerable consistency at the top end of European club rugby, dating back to a win over mighty Toulouse in Munster’s first semi-final appearance, also in Bordeaux, back in 2000. Yet while Munster’s European record is undoubtedly a proud one, with titles in 2006 and 2008 to add gloss to the semi-finals and a competition-best 18 seasons in the knockout stages in 24 attempts, such longevity is accompanied by less enviable statistics.
Since that second crown a decade ago there has been only heartache, with Munster experiencing defeat five times when just 80 minutes from the competition finale, most recently 12 months ago at the Aviva Stadium when they were beaten 26-10 by eventual champions Saracens.
So what will it take for Munster to end their semi-final woes of the last 10 years and finally reach the decider?
“That is the million dollar question,” Holland says. “If you knew that, you would be sitting up there telling us what to do every weekend. This group of players was involved in a semi-final and PRO14 final last year and the PRO14 final against Glasgow a few years ago. We have to take learnings from that. You have got to play. Take your chances. In a PRO14 game an opportunity might be a four v two. In a European semi-final, an opportunity is a two v two. You don’t get the gaping holes and they are hopefully things we have learned from last year.
“Opportunities are so much smaller and so much harder to come by and it’s the small things that win or lose the game. Think back to the game last year, for 65 minutes of the game against Saracens, we were 6-3 down, and had been for about 40 minutes. We conceded a penalty from a scrum and they scored a try a few minutes later and the momentum shifted. We did not have the power or the fitness to come back from it, so hopefully we’ve learned from that.”
Holland’s captain Peter O’Mahony had said much the same thing 12 months earlier on the eve of facing Saracens, about the need to learn from past semi-final defeats and to use those disappointments as motivation.
“It’s tough to take when you get to a semi and get knocked out,” O’Mahony said in April 2017. “It can be quite tiring as well. But a lot of the great teams who have won this competition have gone through heartache, have been close a few times.
“So, hopefully some of the guys who were involved before can take some of those experiences and a little bit of that hurt, and take it into today.”
Alas it was not to be, as Holland explained and now the tally of last-four European losses stands at five in nine seasons.
Five different bosses since 2008 and the inevitable turnover of players in that period discount a firm link between them save for the absence of a favourable draw. Munster have at each point met teams either on the cusp of greatness or at the peak of their powers, rendering home country advantage in 2017 and back in 2009 a moot point.
That the 2009 semi-final was in Dublin against arch-rivals Leinster underlines that point and the 25-6 loss inflicted on the defending champions marked a changing of the guard in Irish rugby as Michael Cheika steered Leinster to a first European title with a side that would win back-to-back Heineken Cups under the stewardship of his successor, Joe Schmidt, in 2011 and 12.
Both provinces would fall to French opposition in the 2010 semis, Leinster at Toulouse and Munster in San Sebastian where they came up a Biarritz side keen to avenge their 2006 final defeat in Cardiff and only too happy to do so on Basque soil just over the Spanish border.
That represented the beginning of the end for Declan Kidney’s heroes of 06 and 08 but while they earned a Pro12 title with a final victory at home to Leinster in 2011, there was one last hurrah to be had in Europe and it came two years later in Montpellier, following an upset quarter-final win at Harlequins.
Munster’s reward, however, was a trip to southern France to face Clermont Auvergne and though there were more heroics from Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell and company, Les Jaunards edged a battle of fine margins in the sun at Stade de la Mosson.
There was a return to the last four the following season but again the draw took Rob Penney’s side to France, this time to the port city of Marseille for the unenviable prospect of facing defending champions Toulon at the apex of their might. Toulon had already dispatched Leinster along the coast at Stade Felix Mayol and they took advantage of a sloppy start from Munster as Jonny Wilkinson kicked 21 of side’s 24 points.
For the fourth time since 2008, the Reds returned home licking their wounds. Whether it was Croke Park, Spain, or France, superior opposition had ended dreams of a return to a European final that had once seemed almost an inalienable right given those season’s marches through the pool stages and quarter-finals.
Alas, last season was no different as fate brought them face to face with an all-conquering Saracens side which had paid its dues in losing semis in 2013 and 2015 either side of a 2014 final defeat to Toulon but had gone unbeaten over nine games in 2016 to lift the Champions Cup at Racing’s expense. Their semi-final victory over Munster the following April would stretch the English side’s unbeaten streak to 17, 16 of those wins, en route to an 18th, retaining the trophy against Clermont in Murrayfield.
Munster had been taught a lesson and there was instant recognition of that by director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who declared that Munster’s gameplan would need to add more strings to its bow if they were to contend for silverware once more.
In-form Racing 92 are about to test whether Erasmus’s challenge to Munster has been answered during the intervening period and both captain Peter O’Mahony and current head coach Johann van Graan, who took over the reins from his fellow South African only in mid-November, believes this season’s team is better equipped 12 months on.
The victory over Toulon, much like the rest of van Graan’s brief tenure, gave hints that Munster have certainly added some strings to their bow and that the arrows are being fired from a variety of directions. So too did Munster’s visit to Racing’s new U Arena for a round-five pool game in January, where it needed two late penalties from Maxime Machenaud to tip the balance in the French side’s favour for a narrow 34-30 win in Paris.
Valuable lessons and, believes van Graan, not a hint of emotional baggage to be seen in his players from semi-finals past.
“No not at all, it’s a massive positive,” the Munster head coach said this week. “A lot of the guys on the team have played last year. Individuals learn lessons, I think that is what experience is all about. You’re going to your second semi-final in two years now, you’ve been there, obviously this is going to be in France and not Ireland. But you try to learn out of your mistakes. Obviously I wasn’t involved last year. It was a totally different team. They played against a quality side who turned out to be champions again but I think if you’ve got to learn, every single day, we’ll take the lessons from that. I think Jerry (Flannery, forwards coach) and Felix (Jones, attack coach) have been fantastic, George (Murray, performance analyst) has been fantastic in terms of guiding me with one or two things that happened last year.
“We’re adapting to change well. I think defensively to not concede a (PRO14) point away from home against the Cheetahs (last Friday) bodes well. We’ll do everything in our power. I’ve a lot of faith in these guys selected. We really want to do it. Anything is possible in a semi. You need to be at your best, I can’t stress that enough. To beat Racing in a semi-final will be a huge achievement for us as a side.”
Close encounters: The semi-final woes
Last-four losses since 2008
Munster’s run to a third final in four seasons was derailed by their fiercest rivals on a tumultuous day at GAA headquarters in front of 82,208 fans. Leinster won every battle with Brian O’Driscoll hammering the final nail into Munster’s coffin with an intercept try 15 minutes from time.
Keith Earls opened the scoring with a try converted by Ronan O’Gara but the rest of the game belonged to Biarritz scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili, who kicked a 39th-minute pen and capitalised on a poor second-half performance from Tony McGahan’s men with five unanswered penalties.
The Reds came up short in Montpellier, but not without a fight. Trailing 13-3 at half-time, a Denis Hurley try converted by Ronan O’Gara on the hour made for a fight to the finish only for a controversial forward-pass decision by Nigel Owens against Paul O’Connell to deny them.
Rob Penney’s side paid for a sluggish start and poor discipline at the breakdown, punished by Jonny Wilkinson, who landed five penalties and added a drop goal.
Having reached the last four after an emotion-fuelled campaign, Rassie Erasmus’s Munster failed to take their opportunities and succumbed to the defending champions.
Sarries blew open a tight game with a 53rd minute try from Mako Vunipola and with Owen Farrell kicking superbly, Munster were unable to find a response to the eventual repeat champions.
Rugby Podcast: Ronan O'Gara, Donal Lenihan and Simon Lewis on the Champions Cup semi-finals. Plus travel agent Pat Dawson on the plight of the fans.
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