After as comprehensive a defeat as Munster suffered at the hands of a rampant and quite brilliant Scarlets in Dublin on Saturday, it would be easy to rant and rave about the shortcomings exposed in this heavy Guinness PRO12 final loss.
After all, this was the second time in five weekends that the province’s supporters have travelled to the Aviva Stadium in huge numbers and seen their beloved side outclassed, outmuscled and outwitted by a more sophisticated brand of rugby.
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus offered no excuses when his players went down in last month’s Champions Cup semi-final to eventual back-to-back champions Saracens and the sense of déjà vu extended beyond the playing field as the South African once again offered logic rather than apologies to the vast majority of the 44,558 who applauded their beaten heroes at full time.
For Erasmus, at the end of his first season since swapping his desk at the South African Rugby Union for the Northern Hemisphere and having had a tracksuit and whistle forced upon him by the untimely death of head coach Anthony Foley, this was another big picture moment. As those around him wore faces of anguish, the former Springbok held his head high and put it all into context as he saw it.
His squad might have performed terribly and been deservedly punished by the free-flowing, super-confident Welshmen from Llanelli; they also might have committed several cardinal sins in defence and been bereft of adequate solutions in attack in a game that saw them finish the season on the wrong side of the six tries to three ledger with their final two scores coming long after this contest was decided.
Yet from where Erasmus stood on Saturday night, a campaign which saw Munster reach a European semi-final, top the regular season PRO12 league table and then reach its final, symbolised significant progress given both its stepping-off point and the tragic circumstances in which it was consumed.
“We were a write-off when we started here; everyone said it wouldn’t work - ‘myself and Axel will never be able to work together, how can they get a South African guy in and how are they going to believe in one another’.
‘How can you get Felix Jones in at 29 (as an attack coach)? Jerry (Flannery, scrum coach) is only 38, where has he coached before?’
“You bring another South African in (defence coach Jacque Nienaber) and people said it would never work.
“Apart from that, people saying it would never work, Anthony passed away... so for me the proudest thing out of this is that people stuck together, backing one another. That’s something to build on, because you’re really tight.
“That was more on the mental side of things. On the field, to only lose three games out of 22 in the PRO12; that’s belief. To get to a (Champions Cup) semi-final when you were the easy team in your pool, we’re not all of a sudden bulletproof.
“I’m trying to look at those things and think it wasn’t that bad. That’s a stepping stone and hopefully next season we can move forward.” As sound and understandable as all Erasmus’s words were, there was no escaping the fact Munster were truly abysmal. The way they capitulated in a first half which saw them concede four tries in the first 31 minutes was eerily reminiscent of the way Leinster had been put to the sword eight days earlier across the road at the RDS, yet for all the video they must have watched of that demolition, Munster managed to look even more ragged than their northern neighbours, whose plight they were powerless to avoid for all the advance warning.
They trailed 29-10 at the interval, fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal providing his side with the slightest of hopes with a try, which he converted on the stroke of half-time.
Yet just when record books were being consulted for great PRO12 fightbacks, a 44th-minute penalty from Bleyendaal’s opposite number Rhys Patchell restored separation to more than three converted tries and those hopes were cruelly extinguished.
Another seemingly effortless try from the men in red saw replacement wing DTH van der Merwe dance through Munster’s blue lines, scattering more bodies in the 70th minute on a day when the province’s tackle completion rate was registered at only 65 per cent.
Even when Munster did find their way through at the opposite end, Andrew Conway’s and Keith Earls’s scores came against a backdrop of Welsh celebration, which extended to their sixth try of the game on 80 minutes, the immaculate James Davies getting the credit on the scoreboard his performance merited. It was left to Lions wing Liam Williams, in his last game for Scarlets before joining Saracens next season, to crown the evening with his second conversion of the game, and one which brought the full-time whistle.
Munster’s misery was at an end, but the pain will linger for more than a while.
“We can’t say we’re sorry (to our supporters) because I know the guys tried,” Erasmus said. “We are trying to put ourselves into their shoes, hopefully, they understand that the guys really tried. We are disappointed that we couldn’t give more back to them. That’s the sad thing. We want to say thank you.”
The South African acknowledges that it is his duty to ensure lessons of this campaign are learned on his return from an end of season break in his homeland when pre-season begins. He understands that more will be expected of Munster in 2017-18 and rightly so.
“Yes, definitely. We must improve.
“Scarlets will grow a lot after this, they will get some additions. Saracens will grow... we must box clever, we are getting a few additions in and we must have a better pre-season. We missed the first three or four weeks of last year’s pre-season because we only joined late. There’s a lot of things that play a role, but we’ve got a chance to improve on this season. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t.
“We will work really hard to try and improve.”
S Zebo (I Keatley, 61); A Conway, F Saili, R Scannell (J Taute, 4-12 and 28), K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams, 72); D Kilcoyne (B Scott, 67), N Scannell (R Marshall, 55), J Ryan (S Archer, 45); D Ryan, B Holland (J O’Donoghue, 52); P O’Mahony – captain, T O’Donnell (J Deysel, 45), CJ Stander.
J McNicholl; L Williams, Jon Davies, S Williams, S Evans (DTH van der Merwe, 57); R Patchell (H Parkes, 55), G Davies (J Evans, 51); R Evans (W Jones, 51), R Elias (E Phillips, 72), S Lee (W Kruger, 28) ; L Rawlins (D Bulbring, 62), T Beirne; A Shingler, James Davies, J Barclay – captain (W Boyde, 62).
Nigel Owens (Wales)
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