The Munster that once were have lost that thunder clap of menace

The club’s history and ambition has always been to reach for the stars and not pick over glorious defeats

If Munster make it to the Champions Cup final next season it will be 15 years since their last in 2008. It’s a sobering thought to know that Keith Earls in the current squad is the only player to have been involved in that distant memory win over Toulouse. On the bench that day, young Earls did not see game time.

As Munster were beating the French team 16-13 in the Millennium Stadium, few could have foreseen that the best supported side in the competition would, over a decade and a half later, be looking at a drought and a team that sometimes appears to be hoping for opportunity rather than making and expecting it.

The club now has young teen fans who have no real experience of Munster in a European final, whose only memories are those that have been handed down to them.

Regardless of their passionate and promising defeat to Toulouse last week in Dublin, Munster have struggled to recapture the calculating presence or gathered the group of players and coaches to pose the chilling kind of threat they once did.

Place almost any adjective you want in front of the team for their drive and commitment, and it is probably accurate. But the Irish team that once stamped their hallmark on the continent have lost that thunder clap of menace.

Since the 2008 final, the twice European winners have been surpassed by Ulster in runs to the last two standing, the Belfast club losing to Leinster in Twickenham in the 2012 final.

Since 2008 the competition has been dominated by three clubs, Toulon, Saracens and Leinster, who have won it three times each, and also Toulouse, who have won it twice. Over the last 13 years, since Munster’s last win, four clubs have won the European cup 11 times.

Fighting chance

Difficult to beat, Munster always give themselves a fighting chance because of what they are made from. They again showed that last week. But given the history and the glory years, fans have a right to ask if that and a string of semi-final defeats since 2008 is what they can look forward to when Graham Rowntree takes residence on July 1st.

Where will Munster go and what will change, and given the lack of a patron to make them big market players how can the squad go about gold-plating itself?

The question is maybe the wrong question. Why should Munster expect more success is perhaps the correct question, rather than why should they not expect more success.

Munster's pack in 2008 went Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery John Hayes. All Ireland. The secondrow was Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, both Ireland one of them an enduring iconic figure. The backrow was man of the match that day Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy, more Irish caps.

Any of the remaining sides in the competition would struggle to match that quality in the forwards. In the halfbacks Munster had Ronan O’Gara and Tomas O’Leary, more international experience, with O’Gara, no matter what his critics thought of his tackling and defence, always a game-winner in clutch matches like the draw last weekend.

The backline was less star-studded, but with All Black World Cup winner Doug Howlett on the right-wing and Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi in the centres. Munster had real zest. Add in fullback Denis Hurley, who was capped, and winger Ian Dowling, also capped.

Munster’s pack against Toulouse was Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O’Mahony (C), Alex Kendellen and Jack O’Donoghue.

A fine backrow, maybe the team’s strongest unit, with Kendellen and O’Donoghue bright careers ahead, but does Munster have the profile of a European Cup-winning team in quality, experience and depth?

Different eras

It is unfair to compare teams from different eras and especially against the “golden” generation, the point being what is required now to punch into the winning zone needs to look more like 2008.

More food for thought is Simon Zebo, on a one-year contract and 33 years old next year, while last week's try-scorer Earls is 35-years-old in October and Conor Murray is 34 years old next year.

Damian De Allende is leaving with powerhouse Malakai Fekitoa arriving, while almost an entire coaching staff of head coach, senior coach Stephen Larkham and defence coach JP Ferreira are also leaving, with Leamy and Mike Prendergast set to return and Andi Kyriacou confirmed as forwards coach.

Munster have had rotten luck with South African World Cup winner RG Snyman, his injury profile at a similar level to that of the prized All Black flier Christian Cullen, who arrived in Ireland in 2003 and was too often injured. Would a fit Snyman have made the difference last week against Toulouse? Maybe.

Munster can point to the seven semi-finals they have reached in the competition since winning in 2008, the last one in 2019 against wage-busting Saracens and argue that it is a decent body of European work.

But their history and ambition always has been to reach for the stars and not pick over glorious defeats to French clubs in kicking competitions. They write their own narrative, measure themselves by their own standards.

Never mind opinion. Munster have always made that a self-sustaining, self-motivating theme. That is their great strength and always has been. It is why almost 15 years and counting has never been part of the script they wrote themselves.