irishtimes– So Munster exit another Champions Cup, an anti-climax made all the more acute by coming up one game short against Leinster again in the Pro 14 final a week previously.
There remains the hybrid and still slightly hypothetical Rainbow Cup but that is not exactly designed to rock their boat, not least as it begins with yet another game against Leinster – the fifth between the sides since last August’s resumption.
In the last decade, Munster have reached three finals and five semi-finals in the Pro 14, and five semi-finals in the Champions Cup. That is commendably consistent when you think of it. No team has been banging on the door more regularly in that time without reward, even if that merely serves to worsen the frustration of the players, management and supporters alike.
Munster actually seemed further away in the post-mortems to other campaigns in the last decade when one thinks of heavy defeats by Leinster, Glasgow, the Scarlets and Saracens twice. But it still won’t appear much of a consolation to their supporters that they contributed so richly to Saturday’s last 16 tie in Thomond Park.
The general perception in both Irish and Welsh rugby is that the former have the better provincial system, while the latter achieve more in international rugby. In light of Wales winning their fourth Six Nations crown in the last decade Ronan O’Gara sparked an interesting debate about which is preferable.
Yet in the last decade, apart from Leinster, the other three Irish provinces have won one trophy between them, namely Connacht’s Pro 12 success in the 2015-16 season. Meantime, in the last decade, the Ospreys and the Scarlets have won a Pro12 each, as have Glasgow, while Cardiff have won the European Challenge Cup.
Of course, winning trophies is not the only barometer of a sport’s wellbeing in a specific country. After all, the four Irish provinces occupied the top two positions in each conference of the Pro 14, although the strength in depth of this competition has never looked weaker, as evidence by the nine defeats suffered on the pitch in Europe at the last 16 stage of both competitions.
This reached a nadir on Sunday when the Scarlets and Edinburgh, despite having all their internationals back, each shipped over 50 points in being completely overpowered by Sale and Racing respectively.
Yet as highlighted earlier, Munster have been winning matches way more consistently over the past 10 years than any of their Celtic rivals bar Leinster. Irish rugby has become over reliant on one province which is not healthy.
And therein lies the rub. A trophy-less decade feels all the worse when your main rivals have hoovered up nine major trophies – six Pro 14s, two Champions Cups and a Challenge Cup over the same 10 years. It’s akin to Manchester United running second in the Premier League while Manchester City are riding off into the sunset to claim their fourth title since United last won one, or Rangers watching Celtic win the Scottish Premiership for the last nine years up until this season and now it’s Celtic’s turn to look on. As well as no prizes, there’s no fun in finishing second.
In the build-up to the Pro14 final there had been an increased sense of optimism in Munster circles, emanating as much from their former players, that their team had their best chance in 10 years of winning a trophy.
Hence, in the fallout of a fourth successive knock-out defeat by Leinster, the criticism coming Munster’s way was all the sharper, and Leinster were not given full credit for the excellence of their performance.
But perhaps Munster’s chances had been overstated. Even missing a few frontliners and with some heavyweight players kept in reserve on the bench, Leinster had beaten them in three successive semi-finals and were three-in-a-row champions. Accordingly, whatever pundits and others may have thought, the bookies made Leinster five-point favourites.
Not for the first time, it was the manner of Munster’s defeat and the supremacy which Leinster enjoyed, even if Stephen Larkham had a welter of statistics to suggest otherwise, which prompted the general criticism of Johann van Graan’s side.
One former Munster player turned pundit maintained that Munster kicked too much. Another former Munster player turned pundit suggested they ought to have kicked more. In fact, Munster kicked the ball 18 times in open play, and Leinster 20 times. Similarly, last Saturday, Toulouse had 29 kicks to Munster’s 22.
Furthermore, Leinster regularly had 14 men in a defensive line on their feet, while keeping one player in the backfield. It was always likely that the Toulouse match, especially given the glorious conditions, would be a more open game, all the more so as the French team kept two, sometimes three and even four players in the backfield. Munster saw the opportunity to run the ball from deep, and did so to telling effect in the build-up to Keith Earls’s two tries.
Although Munster were able to field a strong starting XV in both matches, the greater impact of the Leinster and Toulouse benches was telling.
Another striking feature of both games was the ball carrying and all-round ballast which frontrowers like Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille brought to the two matches. All are frontline Test match animals and are aged between 23 and 28. Munster just don’t have frontrow players of that profile.
Viewed in that light, it seems puzzling that James Cronin hasn’t been offered another contract, as of yet anyway. There is a good crop of young players coming through who have been blooded this season and are being promoted to the senior squad. Yet the retirements of CJ Stander and Billy Holland also leaves a void, as does releasing JJ Hanrahan, for all the promise of Ben Healy, Jack Crowley and Jake Flannery.
The signing of another South African player in Jason Jenkins was not a good look in the week that was in it but now that next season falls more clearly into focus, one can see the rationale in signing a 6’ 7” once-capped Springbok who covers both the secondrow and backrow.
Being consistent contenders, alas, brings no rewards or guarantees, and next season Munster will have to start from scratch again. Yet with both the past and the future in mind, it seemed particularly important for Munster to end their trophy drought this season, not only for avoiding the sense of failure that goes with the ‘decade’ tag, but because the Pro14 will only become harder to win with the advent of the four South African super rugby franchises.
What’s more, as evidence by this weekend’s quarter-final line-up in the Champions Cup, the buoyancy of French rugby – allied to the increased seriousness with which more of their clubs are taking Europe – is only going to make that competition harder to win as well.