If Munster fought the good fight in the southwest of France against Toulouse only to lose agonizingly, 13-12, they were still outclassed during the second half and simply didn’t deserve to win. Meanwhile, for Leinster, there was frustration in equal measure, but infinitely more disappointment. They produced an abysmal performance against another French side, Perpignan, at Lansdowne Road and were lucky to be beaten by just 21-14.
So, as the two Irish provinces went back to the drawing board, the organizers of Europe’s premier club competition were left with a major marketing headache. With the final between two French teams scheduled for Lansdowne Road on May 24, there is now the likelihood of a half-full stadium at best for a showcase event.
No matter how much certain sections of the population love their rugby, a game between Toulouse and Perpignan is hardly much of a draw. Following the complaints over inflated ticket prices for Leinster’s semifinal, they’ll end up giving these away free.
After their remarkable quarterfinal triumph against last season’s winners, Leicester, Munster traveled to Toulouse in confident mood. Backed by 12,000 vociferous and now seriously overdrawn supporters, the atmosphere at the game was electric, and with the visitors leading by 6-3 at the changeover, there was every hope of yet another memorable success story.
But the second half threw up an altogether different picture. Suddenly, Toulouse found their feet and some of their play was awesome and from a position of dominance, Munster were now hanging on. That they kept the scoreline to just a single point difference was a testimony to their magnificent defiance, and that Ronan O’Gara had two opportunities to snatch the result with long-range drop goal attempts at the death spoke volumes for the team’s never-say-die spirit.
Following defeats in the finals of 2002 and 2000, and defeats in the semifinals of 2001 and now 2003, this was more heartache for the Munster players and their loyal supporters. Over those four games, the total points deficit has been only nine. The province that has made this competition its own has been that close for no reward.
The captain Jim Williams gathered the squad in a circle just after the final whistle and insisted that the quest should go on. While there’s no doubting Munster’s resolve, it appears now that coach Alan Gaffney will have to bring in some new personnel as there was a complete lack of an attacking threat last Saturday. While O’Gara kicked sumptuously from the hand, you would have backed the Irish province to create at least one or two try-scoring opportunities given the amount of possession they enjoyed during the first half.
“We gave it a good go, and I don’t think we lost this match, like other matches in the past when we were beaten,” reflected O’Gara, who kicked a drop goal and penalty to give his side that 6-3 advantage at the break. “I thought everyone played to their potential, but some days that’s not enough. This competition breaks our hearts, but the real disappointment was not scoring a try.”
A second O’Gara drop goal early in the second half made it 9-3 to Munster, but the Toulouse substitute Jean Baptiste Elissalde reduced the deficit to just three points with a penalty. That kick, and the switch of Frederic Michalak to out-half, sparked the French into life, and while the Irish defense was outstanding, the pressure was building by the minute.
Still, O’Gara fired over another penalty to make it 12-6 and for a short time, the 12,000 Munster supporters were able to drown out their raucous Toulouse counterparts, but 15 minutes from the end, Michalak darted through for the vital try and Elissalde converted superbly from the left hand touchline.
Guy Noves, the Toulouse coach, approached Gaffney after the game and said almost inaudibly: “We beat a great team.” He was right — despite this latest setback, Munster will return to pursue their Holy Grail.
HEARTBREAK AT HOME
By contrast, there was nothing for Leinster to be proud about. Unbeaten in every game to date and with the significant advantage of playing at Lansdowne Road, it seemed as if all they had to do was turn up last Sunday and the door to the final would open as if by magic.
But, depressingly, they came with their worst performance of the season at the worst possible time. By failing to ignite a crowd of 37,000, which contained no more than 50 Perpignan supporters, the atmosphere was flat and so was the match.
Critically, Leinster’s key player, Brian O’Driscoll, was injured early on and eventually had to be substituted with 20 minutes to go. O’Driscoll’s damaged hamstring meant that there was a limited threat behind the scrum, and while the home team led by only 3-0 at halftime, that was more down to some grossly inaccurate place kicking by Brian O’Meara.
With Leinster badly needing to convert their pressure into points, the onus was on O’Meara to deliver, but he could succeeded with jusy two penalties from seven attempts. That failure kept a dogged Perpignan side in a dreary error-strewn contest, and even when wing Gordon D’Arcy crossed for a Leinster try in the 58th minute to make it 11-6, there was a feeling that the French were becoming more and more confident.
“We played very poorly and the best team won, it’s as simple as that,” O’Driscoll admitted. “Play like that in a semifinal and you don’t progress. Perhaps there were a few nerves out there, we made so many unforced errors.”
Meanwhile, coach Matt Williams blamed his team’s error rate for the defeat. “You just can’t do that at this level,” he said. “It was the biggest day of the season for us and it was the one day we didn’t perform.”
Instead of Leinster increasing their lead, it was Perpignan that upped the tempo with two tries by Pascal Bomati and substitute hooker Marc Dal Maso. With their Australian out-half, Manny Edmonds, becoming more influential, the favorites were well-beaten by the end.
“When we look back on this, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll know that a place in the final wasn’t beyond us and we didn’t take the opportunity,” Williams said.
Almost 37,000 frustrated supporters would have agreed wholeheartedly.