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End of an era

We wish the old Meat Loaf ditty 'Two out of three ain't bad' applied, but on this occasion it doesn't wear. Irish rugby was in a good Heineken Cup place after Saturday, with Leinster and Ulster doing all that was asked of them and, in Leinster's case, even more.

Far from cranking up the pressure on Munster ahead of their arrival in the bear-pit of the Stade Felix Mayol, it added to the feel-good factor. What followed, however, felt more like a funeral for a team we have come to embrace and identify with.

The time for change is here. While there will be many willing to dance on the Munster grave, the game down south is very far from six feet under. However, this is certainly a time to reassess.

Attention will now turn to the Magners League but, for Munster, the Celtic competition is very much the consolation prize. Success in Europe is the yardstick of their season and in that respect, they have failed.

In a warped way the absence of the international contingent over the Six Nations period should help. It will force coach Tony McGahan to concentrate on the development of so many of the promising players who outplayed the Wallabies in November.

But back to Sunday and to the end of an era. There was a panel in these pages yesterday listing 'Munster's Six of the Worst' but, for me, there was one worse than those again.

It slipped under the radar for the simple reason that anyone checking the records would see '13-12 to Toulouse in the 2003 semi-final' and presume it had been a substantial Munster performance on French soil.

Two years before that in Lille they were robbed (16-15) by Stade Francais in a semi-final they could, should and would have won had the technology been in place to pick up on John O'Neill's disallowed try.


In 2003, despite the one-point margin, in Toulouse the feeling of defeat was much more deflating because Munster had been beaten all ends up -- the one-point margin flattered them. It was a rare occasion where they were beaten everywhere on the pitch.

Sunday's defeat and the manner of it brought memories of '03 flooding back.

In the aftermath of that game the absence of threat behind the scrum was addressed and what followed is history.

The hallmark of Munster rugby has long been its in-house honesty. As with the Toulon trouncing, it is essential there be no circling of the wagons.

Everybody is NOT out to get them. The reality is that they are struggling to stay the pace both up front and in the backs. Where once the pack rumbled, established field position and eked out penalties for Ronan O'Gara to do the rest, that forward superiority is no longer there.

Behind the scrum they are lacking any real cutting edge. You could argue that one feeds into the other, but even with half-decent ball, the backline is running laterally, making opposition defensive alignment all too easy on the drift. Toulon bossed Sunday's must-win match with the ball and without.

There is also the issue of discipline. For a side that has long prided itself on individual and collective restraint, Sunday was a mess. Ultimately, penalties come from pressure, but mindless yellow cards -- resulting in soft points -- can have little defence and here Donncha O'Callaghan must hold up his hand. He may have talked the talk in the build-up, but his act of recklessness added to the freefall appreciably.

O'Gara was unlucky to be binned but, against that, skipper Denis Leamy (along with Felipe Contepomi) could also have walked. Running in from 30 metres away to join a skirmish is no act of leadership in my book. It may reflect a level of frustration but constructive leadership it is definitely not.

Aside from David Wallace, Damien Varley (in fits and starts) and Lifeimi Mafi (following his second-half introduction) there were precious few straws for McGahan to clutch at.

Most worryingly, not alone were Munster out-scrummaged but for at least two-thirds of the match they were outmuscled in the collisions. In the end they were beaten every bit as convincingly as the 32-16 scoreline suggests.

The only tactical issue I would have would be in not fielding a genuine breakaway (Niall Ronan -- with Wallace wearing No 6) when the selection of Peter Stringer ahead of Tomas O'Leary signalled one option and one option only off the scrum -- ruck and maul. It worked in Limerick with Alan Quinlan at blind-side and, more significantly, with Contepomi all over the place at out-half for Toulon.

Jonny Wilkinson is a different animal. Much like O'Gara he is pragmatic to the nth degree. Give him penalty opportunities and he will blow you away. They did and he did.

It's seldom you come away from a Munster game without O'Gara leaving a tactical mark, as happened on Sunday. That reflects the total Toulon dominance.

As Paul O'Connell rightly says, they are now at a crossroads with need for change on the field and off. They need that boot-room psyche by way of a greater indigenous input. McGahan is still the man but strong-willed characters of the Anthony Foley, Mick Galway, Keith Wood ilk are in need of a greater say or in the case of Wood, a little enticement to come on board.

Sunday in Toulon was much more than a blip -- it was Old Father Time catching up with a gifted group of players who have served the province so well. It happens to teams in sporting codes all the time. The key is in recognising it and in addressing it by way of gradual transition.

There are some big decisions ahead. The comprehensive nature of Sunday's defeat has set alarm bells ringing.

A good team hasn't become bad but it has grown old and crotchety. It needs the injection of new blood badly. Joe Schmidt and Leinster have shown the way in fusing old heads with new and were magnificent on Saturday against Saracens.

Like Toulon, Toulouse and Leicester, the 2009 champions deal in total rugby. The old order here is changing with Leinster in the vanguard and Ulster on the rise. That is no bad thing, providing Munster recognise it and reinvent accordingly. They will.

Irish Independent