For the sixth time in the decade since they last reached a European Champions Cup final, and won, Munster have come up one game short after yesterday's anti-climactic 27-22 defeat to Racing 92 in the Stade Chaban Delmas. And so instead of an all-Irish final, Leinster will face the Parisians in Bilbao on May 12th.
It’s still a fine achievement to again reach the semi-finals of this competition. It’s more than 16 other teams managed.
Yet for all the world this again felt like Munster had come up against a glass ceiling, albeit they were authors of much of their own misfortune in a decidedly curious game, especially in Racing’s destructive opening quarter with three tries before Munster scored three of their own in the last quarter.
Johann van Graan maintained they would be back.
“I thought we came through some massive battles over the last six or seven months in this competition. Like I said, the clock caught us in the end and maybe a better start and maybe using one or two opportunities we would have won this game.
“If we had lost this game and hadn’t created any opportunities I’d be a worried man, but I’m very proud of the opportunities that we did create.
“We’ll be back next year, I’m incredibly proud of this group and this club and the coaching staff. I think that’s the thing about rugby, it’s like life, if knocks you down, credit to our opponents, but we’ll get back up.”
Munster’s defence was filleted in the opening 23 minutes, by which stage Racing had run in three tries and led 24-3. Looking rattled, they missed 16 tackles, made errors with the ball before ultimately translating almost 70 per cent of possession and 77 per cent of territory into those late tries. Until then, they had continually eschewed kicks at goal as they sought to make up such a big deficit, but their lineout badly malfunctioned.
Given van Graan had highlighted Racing's defensive lineout as second only to the All Blacks in the world game, his decision to promote Niall Scannell ahead of Rhys Marshall will be debated, as will the decision to leave the province's record try scorer, Simon Zebo, on the bench.
Both were part of a quadruple substitution two minutes into the second half, and each scored, with Zebo also creating Andrew Conway’s try with the game’s last play. Zebo thus equalled Anthony Foley’s Munster record of 23 tries in the competition, but van Graan maintained he had no regrets.
“Not at all,” he said. “I thought the seven replacements all made a huge impact. We always knew this game was going to go right to the end. We did not plan to be in a position where we were 24-3down. That was not part of the plan. The impacts did a brilliant job.
“The clock caught us at the end. Two or three minutes more, maybe we had an opportunity. But there are no excuses on my side. We weren’t good enough on the day and to let a team score three tries in the first 20 minutes of a European Cup semi-final, you are going to struggle to win it. I am very proud of the way the guys reacted at half-time. They kept going. Unfortunately we came up short.”
In many respects, Munster’s defeat was reminiscent of Leinster’s to Clermont last season in Lyon at the same stage. Munster looked weary in the opening half-hour yet their strong finish to both halves rather gives the lie to the notion that ten flights in the last three weeks had taken something from their legs, something which van Graan, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander maintained was not the case.
A huge Red Army contingent appeared to account for roughly half the 24,574 supporters, with Racing’s surprisingly numerous contingent seemingly swelled by Bordeaux fans adopting their French rivals for the day. But the Munster hordes were left deflated by the manner of their team’s start, even if they mirrored their team’s resilience right until the final whistle.
The final is a guaranteed sell-out, with just 3,200 tickets kept back for each of the finalists. Over 22,000 of the 46,000 already sold have been bought in Spain, raising the possibility of a fair few neutrals being in the stadium come kick-off.
After taking on Connacht in Galway next Saturday, Leinster should earn themselves a rest weekend in the Pro14 play-offs before the European final, but Leo Cullen stressed: "We need to get a point [against Connacht] for definite to make sure we are top of our conference so we will see who play from the other conference, the two/three play-off winners."
“So we need to get a point to make sure there is a weekend off there so we will be going full out for the game in Bilbao and then we will see who is left standing and then we can make some calls for what we hope is a [Pro14] semi-final the week afterwards. For the time being we will just make sure we take care of the guys and try and get the best 15 available.”
In contrast, Racing must face Bordeaux away and Agen at home in the intervening two Saturdays.
Their co-coach Laurent Labit said: "Of course we're proud, we're very proud. When you're a coach you look at the match and after 40 minutes it was like a piece of cake that we had prepared. We had 40 minutes of very high-level rugby where we played as we had decided. We had a strong start and blocked Munster's mindset, the forwards and the collision game.
“What we needed was to keep the ball and we scored three tries, all three in situations we had planned and identified. It was a great 40 minutes at that level. We want to win a title and we saw Leinster yesterday, so we will have to do the same for 80 minutes against Leinster, because 40 won’t be enough.”