As the dust settles on an enthralling weekend of rugby we now know who will compete in the Champions cup final in Bilbao on May 12th.
Leinster blew the Scarlets away in a performance that was both ruthlessly clinical and at the same time not entirely shocking given the standards they’ve set for themselves in Europe this season thus far. On Sunday Munster saw their hopes of an all Irish final dashed by a Racing 92 performance that underlined their potential to go all the way and win the competition.
So often we associate Munster with the big game team who know how to get it done when it counts with memories of Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and 2008 coming to mind, yet this is a team that has tasted more semi-final and final defeats than they would have ever imagined possible. Munster now carry the unenviable record of losing all of their last 6 European Cup semi-finals, dating all the way back to their infamous loss to Leinster at Croke Park in 2009.
This latest defeat seems to carry a little more sting, perhaps it’s because so many wanted the all Irish final, or that many felt after disposing of European heavyweights Toulon that Racing should be an opponent Munster can conquer or maybe the fact that there have been so many near misses is the part that hurts the most. For players and fans alike this one was hard to take, as Peter O’Mahony pointed out – “I’m getting tired of learning lessons myself, personally, to be honest. They all hurt these ones”.
As we look closely at the game to get a sense of where it was won and lost it is painfully evident that Munster’s slow start is ultimately what lost them their chance of banishing their semi final losing record. Three tries conceded in 22 minutes in a game as big as this is an unacceptable head start to give to your opposition.
Defensively Munster were uncharacteristically poor, with a tackle completion rate of just 66% from the first half highlighting their struggles, young Alex Wootton no doubt a fine prospect will have many lessons to learn from his first encounter with Teddy Thomas. The decision to start Wootton was in many ways correct as his form was his merit, yet hindsight being what it is it may have been somewhat a naive selection for a game so pivotal. The young winger may get plenty of unwanted attention for the performance, but he was far from the only player in red who struggled to deal with the power and aggression of Racing’s attack.
While Munster in the past may have been criticised for being too forward focused without showing the attacking guile in their backs, on this occasion their efforts up front also let them down. With a game plan based so heavily on winning collisions and getting over the gain line when Munster found themselves coming off second best in this area everything else seemed to fall apart. To their credit Racing deserve much praise for halting Munster, often using a chop tackle to stop the likes of Stander and O’Mahony from being able to generate any kind of go forward momentum.
The pack as a whole struggled as the likes of Lauret, Ben Arous and in particular, Nyanga crashed over the gain line time and time again as well as causing all sorts of issues for Munster at the breakdown. While the scrum was solid and won a couple of penalties, the same could not be said for the lineout where things seemed to go wrong until Rhys Marshall was introduced in the second half. Perhaps the presence of Donnacha Ryan in the Racing side created a sense of panic in the Munster set piece as throws often seemed over complicated and were repeatedly off the mark.
As the forwards struggled to win go forward ball the sense of unease began to spread through the team, and at this point, it is vital for a team’s out-half to take control of the game and find success in another way, Ian Keatley did not manage to do this.
Keatley is often the scapegoat in Munster losses and is on the receiving end of more unfair criticism than most, however, Sunday was far from his finest showing in a red shirt. While the Dublin man has had a good season often appearing more solid than Tyler Bleyendaal, on this day he looked rattled from the get-go. The decision to take a drop at goal while not in the pocket and having just moments ago not taken the penalty seemed to be one of a number of poor choices and executions in the game.
Similarly for a pack who are already struggling to see their 10 fail to make touch with his kicks is hugely demoralising and only served to boost Racing’s momentum further. For Munster the hard question must be asked, are any of their out-half options of the calibre to lead a team to win the Champions Cup? Keatley seems to have such questions about his ability at the top level asked practically every season, Bleyendaal having undergone a second neck surgery of his career, has continued to struggle for fitness, while the hope held for Hanrahan seems to have faded as he finds himself in the position of backup that he was before he left for the Northampton Saints.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Munster of course, as the season has had plenty of positives, in particular, the handling of the mid-season coaching change. While injuries have been plentiful and no doubt the likes of Chirs Farrell, Jaco Taute and Chris Cloete could have had a real impact on the semi-final, there has been a number of promising young players who have come through this year with Sam Arnold looking particularly strong in Europe this season.
While we saw the forwards struggle on Sunday, the addition of Tadgh Beirne is an incredible coup for Munster as the Kildare man has been one of the tournaments standout performers this year. Beirne’s arrival combined with a full pre-season for Johann van Graan and his team to reaffirm their coaching ideas and hopefully fewer injuries will leave Munster in a stronger position coming into next season, however, the big question still hanging over this team since the retirement of Ronan O’Gara is who is the 10 that can steer them past the semi-final hurdle?