Munster's epic ends as tragedy
WELL that's the end of that then. After 12 years of memorable, competition-defining Heineken Cup knock-out action -- a storied period when the tale was Munster elevated to the point of mythology -- the dream is over.
No quarter-final place and plenty of questions to answer. The speculation that Munster were an ageing team and a fading force had been forcibly refuted by the camp all season and backed up by their confident progress to the summit of the Magners League and hammering of Toulon in Thomond Park last October.
Now, the evidence is irrefutable. Yes, the group was extremely difficult but Munster have emerged from tough pools in the past, upsetting odds and confounding critics just as they did when de-frocking then French champions Perpignan in glorious style last season.
There wasn't a glimmer of a repeat performance here. Toulon got their tactics and selection (Jonny Wilkinson at out-half) spot on, Munster got theirs badly wrong.
Toulon played rugby 1-2-3, a dominant set-piece, aggressive tackling and masterly control from their half-backs with Jonny Wilkinson kicking beautifully and No 8 Joe van Niekerk outstanding.
Munster came with a game plan to spread the ball wide and move a conservative Toulon side around the park but that policy would have been best suited by picking Johne Murphy, Munster's most inventive attacker this season, in the centre ahead of Sam Tuitupou.
Instead, Munster shovelled the ball back and forth, almost in training drill style, and were mown down at will by the excellent Toloun defence.
It needed some element of variation, dummy runners, wrap-arounds, something to unhinge the home side but there was nothing and, when Plan A was so blatantly not working, Munster needed to revert their more traditional position game and kick the corners.
Soon, there was no opportunity for a Plan B kicking game as Munster suddenly needed to keep the ball alive to haul back Toulon's lead, and the passing became even frantic.
And, when the writing was chiselled into the wall, there was the unedifying sight of Munster
losing their discipline as frustration got the better of them. An unnecessary yellow card for Donncha O'Callaghan after dangerous obstruction was followed by Ronan O'Gara being sent to the bin after an altercation with Pierre Mignoni which led to a mass melee, as the Munstermen piled in -- arguably their most cohesive move of the day.
It had started so well, the gamble of starting Paul O'Connell paying a handsome dividend when the second-row claimed Ronan O'Gara's perfect kick-off and Sebastien Bruno's shaky line-out throw to set up a penalty for O'Gara, who made it 3-0 after three minutes.
Toulon's response was swift and direct, Wilkinson kicking for position and efficient movement nearly putting Paul Sackey over on the right only to be foiled by Munster's desperate
scramble defence. A good start by the visitors but the scrum was an immediate concern.
John Hayes was getting a grilling by Laurent Emmanuelli and earning the ire of referee Dave Pearson, allowing Wilkinson to make it 9-3 after 17 minutes. The out-half then narrowly missed from 57 metres after another scrum penalty.
Toulon kept the squeeze on and a couple of minutes later a beautiful kick by scrum-half Mignoni was gathered by centre Christian Loamanu, who crashed over for a try which was, inevitably, converted by Wilkinson for 16-3.
O'Gara banged over an excellent kick after Toulon transgressed at the restart, but the visitors looked rattled, with no clear sense of direction, and the home side, spotting the frailties, were infused with confidence.
Still, Munster had plenty of possession and at 16-6 were far from out of it so the last thing they needed was O'Callaghan's sin-binning with the crowd roaring for red and Wilkinson making it 19-6.
Good goalkeeping by Warwick allowed Stringer to clear the ball on the line but from the gather, Mignoni skipped past the challenge of Denis Leamy and set off on a wonderful, mazy run, releasing beautifully in the tackle.
The scoring pass to Sackey went astray but the winger showed tremendous resolve to squirm over in the corner, with Wilkinson converting from the touchline for a daunting 26-6 lead.
O'Gara pegged back a penalty but a 17-point deficit had an insurmountable look to it and Munster sprinted for the dressing-room desperate to put the nightmare first-half behind them.
It never happened. With their best player Warwick -- who had shipped a nasty first-half blow that left him distinctly wobbly -- failing to re-emerge, Toulon were not about to let one of Europe's big fish off the hook.
Wilkinson quickly made it 29-9 and then 32-9 after 58 minutes, with O'Gara's yellow card and the mass schemozzle coming in between.
Toulon appeared almost shocked by the extent of their superiority and there was a lessening in intensity with prop Davit Kubriashvili sin-binned -- the tireless David Wallace crossed for a consolation try on 75 minutes with O'Gara converting.
A grim, grim day for Munster and their supporters, their depression compounded by the evidence that Leinster have now moved far beyond their reach.
The post-mortem will be extensive and far-reaching, with particular emphasis on the crippling scrummaging and backline deficiencies.
A rebuilding process is required and there is still a Magners League title to be won when McGahan can continue the good work he has been doing bringing through younger players.
This was worrying also for Ireland coach Declan Kidney, who must now re-assess the merits of some of the Munster bastions of the Irish team over the past number of years.
The fact that O'Connell was able to put in 74 minutes was encouraging looking ahead to the Six Nations but positives are thin on the ground after this unsettling, era-ending occasion for Munster.
TOULON -- R Wulf; P Sackey, G Lovobalavu (F Aulea 70), F Contepomi, C Loamanu (R Lamont 64); J Wilkinson, P Mignoni (L Magnaval 58); L Emmanuelli, S Bruno (J Orioli 59), D Kubriashvili; C Samson, D Schofield (K Chesney 59); JF Lobbe, G Smith (J El Abd 75), J van Niekerk (capt, M Merabet 73).
MUNSTER -- P Warwick (L Mafi 40); D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, P Stringer (T O'Leary (49); W du Preez (D Hurley 71), D Varley, J Hayes (T Buckley 46); D O'Callaghan (M O'Driscoll 60), P O'Connell (N Ronan 74); J Coughlan (D Ryan 53), D Wallace, D Leamy (capt).
REF -- D Pearson (RFU).