End of the affair as Munster offer 'no excuses'
WHEN the end of Munster's great romance came, it was never going to be pretty.
Things have been on the wane for a while now, but the old charmers were always able to resurrect a spark when it was badly needed.
For 15 seasons, they stepped out together hand in hand. Through highs and lows, Munster and the Heineken Cup persevered together and sometimes it looked like they were inter-dependent.
The competition went and got itself a shiny new look this year, but people said it had lost some of its charm. Leaner and meaner, it would be less accepting of their old flame's mistakes, less forgiving of the slips.
On Saturday at lunchtime, the end came with a bang; delivered by the sight of Chris Ashton swan-diving his way on to the astroturf and Billy Vunipola swatting away tacklers to his heart's content.
Munster, it seems, didn't see it coming. Paul O'Connell appeared to have lost his powers, Duncan Williams was just lost, BJ Botha looked more competition winner than World Cup winner as the scrum was marched backwards.
Training had been good all week, we were told in the brief post-match exchanges, the belief was strong. There were no excuses, but there was precious little explanation either.
"You're not going to compete with a team like Saracens if you're going to carry on like that. Knock-ons, missed calls, inaccuracies. . ." a clearly devastated captain Peter O'Mahony said.
"You're not going to compete.
"We had a good week's training, it went well on Thursday and guys knew what they were at, but it just didn't come through today. There was no stage when we got a bit of momentum and built pressure, I don't know if we've any excuses; I thought Saracens were very good.
"It's hugely frustrating, but every time we ended up there it was a result of our own mistakes. Every time we got up the field, we'd get a lineout or a scrum and we'd be penalised, have an inaccurate lineout, a turnover in midfield, a missed ruck. . ."
O'Mahony is one of the vast number of children spawned by the great romance. He attended both final wins in 2006 and 2008, the glorious Cardiff evenings when Munster were crowned Europe's best teams.
The flanker wants to follow Anthony Foley and O'Connell up those steps one day, but instead he is just the second skipper to have no European rugby to look forward to beyond January since 1999.
He looked understandably broken-hearted as he spoke for two minutes and 20 seconds before being whisked away by a press officer.
The thing that hurt most was that Munster deserved nothing from their trip to London. Indeed, it was Sarries who were left wanting more after somehow missing out on a bonus point.
"Look, we'd always pride ourselves on, when we come away from home in the Heineken Cup, especially against the English and French teams, that we'll dig in for a performance, we find it from somewhere; we got to places where no one wants to go. I don't think we did that today," O'Mahony acknowledged.
"It's not that we didn't want it,not that the boys didn't try hard but we weren't accurate enough."
They had arrived to a freezing cold ground in the north-west of London to be greeted by a sea of red.
Despite Saracens' efforts, and a welcome from chairman Nigel Wray that described the Munster fans as "orange hordes", the visiting fans made up a huge contingent.
They sang their hearts out, but it was evident from early on that losing Conor Murray to a neck injury was going to be fatal. Williams was in real trouble, his errors seemed to spread throughout the team like an infection, Saracens pinned them back in a corner and pounded their line.
By half-time, they trailed by 20 points and, in the words of their coach, hadn't fired a shot in anger.
In the end, they spoke about giving a performance next week, even though they now exist in a land of no tomorrows. There will be no need for calculators at Thomond Park next Sunday when Sale Sharks come to visit. It's just a glorified friendly, a dead rubber. The Limerick venue has been a hard sell at times this season, this week will be tougher than ever.
"We've got to bottle it up now and put in a performance next week. We've left our fans down who travelled, we've left our fans at home down, we've left our families down, we left ourselves down," O'Mahony (pictured, right) said.
"We've got to have a good performance next week and the next few weeks in the Guinness Pro12. They're non-negotiable, those performances."
For an institution built on European success, the bread and butter of will be hard to digest. However, part of the reason the two-time champions ended up in this position is because of their late-season league collapse last year.
Seeding is based on your league performance and their inability to keep hold of top spot cost them dear. Once the pool draw was made, you could see an early exit coming.
Foley believes his home province can still compete with the likes of Clermont and Saracens, but he will need to be backed in the transfer market if his words are to ring true.
"Yeah, we can," he said. "We can't be going into a key game with 16 of our squad unavailable due to injury for this week.
"Now, not all those players would play, but there's a good chunk of them that would make the side and make the 23. So it's about keeping fellas on their feet and making sure that we get to the big games in the big competitions that we've the majority of our squad fit."
Sure, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley, Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Gerhard van den Heever and Robin Copeland would have helped on Saturday, but Saracens were missing bodies too; they just had far more strength in depth.
For Foley and his home-grown management team, it was a devastatingly disappointing performance - the worst of the season according to the coach, but there can't have been many worse in the last 15 years of European success.
"Yeah. I think because of what was on the line," the former No 8 acknowledged when he was asked if it was the most disappointing outing of his first season in charge.
"Because we knew that if we didn't win we didn't have a next week, and we're out of the competition and that's the consequences, and what goes with that is that massive feeling of disappointment."
April will be a difficult month for Munster as their old flame moves on in public.
They've lost their aura and run out of lives. Foley has a huge job on his hands to restore their allure and make his beloved province great again.