In the raw aftermath of a second successive European semi-final defeat, there was very little a Munster captain could say to put a positive spin on yet another bitterly disappointing visit to the Champions Cup last four.
The scoreline will not treat the Irish province harshly when future generations glance through the record books, but there was so much more to this showdown in the sun at Stade Chaban-Delmas yesterday than is reflected by the five-point differential on the scoreboard between Racing 92 and Peter O’Mahony’s Munster.
Head coach Johann van Graan will take much from his first Champions Cup campaign as he approaches his first pre-season at the helm this summer, but for O’Mahony, the gut-wrenching sourness of this day in Bordeaux, 12 months on from a similarly depressing experience against Saracens in the Aviva Stadium, will linger a lot longer.
The relatively young squad the Corkman leads will continue to develop and progress from this point, fuelled a little more by the disappointment of failing to deliver an all-Irish final against Leinster in Bilbao on May 12. Yet, for O’Mahony, there was nothing more to take on board and store for future campaigns.
He had seen his team steamrolled by Racing 92 for 30 spellbinding minutes of the first half with a powerplay that dominated every collision and breakdown to get them over the gainline time and again, setting up wing Teddy Thomas to strike three times with finishing so clinical that he was content with two tries, generously offering the ball on a plate to Maxime Machenaud to score the third after just 21 minutes.
When Munster’s fightback did come just before half-time, their breakdown woes continued, the effort came to nought, Racing went into the break leading 27-3, and the game was beyond them.
A late rally came as Racing’s conditioning began to fail them and 181 tackles finally took their toll. There was a try for Simon Zebo, omitted from the starting line-up, but Munster’s brightest threat when introduced after 42 minutes. That equalled the province’s European try-scoring record of 23 set by Anthony Foley.
Replacement hooker Rhys Marshall also scored and starting full-back Andrew Conway went over at the death, benefitting from a great kick ahead from Zebo. JJ Hanrahan, on for a misfiring Ian Keatley after just 52 minutes, kicked two of the three conversions to put some gloss on the final scoreline, but no-one who witnessed this semi-final will be fooled by that, not least the Munster captain.
“I am getting tired of learning lessons myself, to be honest,” said O’Mahony. “They all hurt, these ones, but I am very proud of the way the lads showed up in the second half.
"We were behind by a fair bit, but we kept the head down and gained some momentum in the second half, but it was too much and too late at the end. When you give a side like that a lead like that, you are leaving yourself with a huge task, but as I said, I was proud of the way the lads showed up in the second half. I am tired of losing semi-finals.”
As good as Racing were in that opening half-hour, Munster’s poor execution was a contributory factor, their tackle success rate during the first a measly 66%, the lineout malfunctioning to an alarming degree to negate any benefit accrued from a solid scrum and the majority of both possession and territory.
Again, you read the match statistics and wonder how Racing are still chasing silverware in Europe as well as domestically. With just 31% of the ball and 23% territory, the one thing they did possess was a cutting edge and a dominance of every contact, which was akin to Leinster’s mastery over Scarlets the day before.
Thomas’s finishing was a deadly as it had been in the blue jersey of France when he scythed through Ireland’s defence on that opening night of the Six Nations in Paris, Machenaud’s accuracy with the boot just as impressive and the tackling of Donnacha Ryan (19) and Wenceslas Lauret (18) befitting of the best defence in the French Top14.
Even Dan Carter’s 25 minutes off the bench were a testament to a defensive mentality and culture championed by former defence coach Ronan O’Gara and continuing under his successor Chris Masoe.
The All Black fly-half legend put in a succession of try-saving tackles in those final moments to deny a more meaningful Munster comeback, as Racing began to creak, with Marc Andreu yellow-carded between the 62nd and 72nd minutes for repeated team offsides.
No wonder Munster’s once-again marvellous travelling support, numbering around half of the 24,574 crowd, rose as one to give the Racing players a standing ovation.
“Look, we struggled the first 30, 35 minutes,” said O’Mahony. “We knew they’re very powerful when they get momentum and they come out of the trap and we failed to stop it.
"I didn’t think we defended them well enough and we lost a lot of collisions in the first 30 minutes, which ultimately cost us. I think when you’re going to cough up 21 points against a side of that quality in the space of 20 minutes, you’re going to put yourself on the back foot.
“They moved the ball as a result of us not winning collisions. As a result of that, they got momentum. They are very hard to stop when they get momentum. They’re big men, front-foot ball. With a pack and backline like that, they’re very hard to stop.
"We knew that, we spoke about that before and we failed to stop their momentum and straight away you’re on the back foot with a team like that.”
So too the lineout, with four lost at crucial moments and the maul, usually so potent for Munster, little used when the game was a genuine contest early in the first half.
“They put us under pressure,” said O’Mahony. “You need your set-piece going well. I thought our set-piece was quite good. Scrum was good, we knew we were going to be in a serious competition with their lineout, they’re the best defensive lineout in the Top 14.
"They are hugely competitive in Europe as well. We knew we weren’t going to win all of them, but they certainly got us there, definitely.”
L Dupichot (D Carter, 55); T Thomas, V Vakatawa (J Rokocoko, 58), H Chavancy, M Andreu; P Lambie, M Machenaud - captain (T Iribaren, 73); E Ben Arous (V Kakovin, 51), C Chat (D Szarzewski, 51), C Gomes Sa (V Afatia, 51); D Ryan, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, B Le Roux (B Chouzenoux, 55), Y Nyanga (A Claassen, 58).
M Andreu 62-72 mins.
A Conway; K Earls, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton (S Zebo, 42); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 52), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 42), N Scannell (R Marshall, 42), S Archer (J Ryan, 42-59); J Kleyn (G Grobler, 60), B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue (R Copeland, 52), CJ Stander.
Replacement not used:
JP Doyle (RFU)
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