'I'd never criticise my players' - Johann van Graan accepts responsibility for below-par performance
Racing 92 27-22 Munster
Once again, Munster found themselves within touching distance of the summit only to fall off a precipice.
A Champions Cup final was 80 minutes away, but after 25 breathless minutes it was gone for another year. They were blown away by Racing 92 and, while they rallied and kept playing until the bitter end, it never felt like they could stage a historic comeback.
All of the ingredients were in place; their key men were fit and in form and they had the loud backing of around half of the 24,574-strong crowd at Stade Chaban-Delmas.
They'd beaten the Parisians three times in the last two seasons, had just come off a spirit-lifting stint in South Africa and, yet, for the sixth successive semi-final, they came up short. Throw in two substandard Guinness PRO12 final displays and it's a poor return.
An exasperated Peter O'Mahony put it best, as he shrugged and said: "I am getting tired of learning lessons".
Although he was proud of the fight the players showed, the captain accepted that they'd under-performed and his coach took responsibility for their failings.
It was a collective malfunction. The disquiet about the decision to omit Simon Zebo proved to be on the money and it was only when the full-back came on that their attacking game looked in any way threatening.
All three of the tries came down Alex Wootton's wing, but the youngster won't bear all of the blame because far more senior men missed tackles on the wondrous Teddy Thomas who was so confident his team would win he handed his hat-trick try to Maxime Machenaud having done all the hard work himself.
Johann Van Graan argued that the impact Zebo made off the bench was exactly why he picked him there, but the departing 28-year-old is a big game player, who had every motivation to perform on what turned out to be his final European performance for his home province.
His second-half try equalled Anthony Foley's European record of 23 and that serves as a reminder of just how important he is to the team.
Niall Scannell was another surprise inclusion after Rhys Marshall's excellent recent form and his lineout throwing was below his usual standards, but there was no accounting for the poor performance of his out-half.
Against a club that can start Springbok Pat Lambie at No 10 and then bring on the great Dan Carter to close it out, Ian Keatley struggled badly.
He has enjoyed a fine season and played his part in getting the team this far, but it was no surprise to see him hauled ashore after 53 minutes. Scannell and Wootton had already left the stage by that time.
Afterwards, Van Graan defended his side.
"I'd never criticise my players. When we lose, it's on me, I'm the head coach and I take responsibility," he said.
"We'll look at our decision-making and hopefully put the players under those pressure situations in training, and I thought the opposition conceded quite a few penalties in the '22... But we've got no excuse, and we'll have to grow as a team and to use those opportunities in a big game.
"Whenever you don't have a good start, most guys look at your Numbers 9 and 10.
"I thought there were some good moments, I had thought there were some average moments, but again I'll have to go and have a look at the video.
"The whole team, the whole squad takes responsibility for that start, and like I said we'll review it on Tuesday, take from it what we can, and then go on again, start at zero.
"You know, losing a semi-final is a very difficult one to take, and we'll pick ourselves up.
"At the end of the day it's a rugby game, we weren't good enough on the day and we've got to be better."
With the travelling support in full voice it was quite a scene that welcomed the teams onto the pitch, but within five minutes Thomas struck for the first try to silence the crowd.
He beat Wootton all ends up and on the 20 minute mark he left Conor Murray and Jean Kleyn for dead. Three minutes later, he raced clear for what was, for all intents and purposes, his third try only to hand the ball to Machenaud who touched down for him.
The captain converted all three tries and added a penalty to make it 24-3.
If there was to be a way back, Munster had to strike before the break but they found the Ronan O'Gara-designed defence, led by Donnacha Ryan, impossible to break down without Zebo's creativity.
They pounded the line but their frustration was summed by their inability to convert from a 5m scrum in first-half injury time as Virimi Vakatawa got over the ball and forced a penalty.
The second-half continued along those lines, with the France centre and Machenaud each contributing big turnovers and Dan Carter chipping in a couple of brilliant tackles.
Munster finished with three tries from Zebo, Rhys Marshall and Andrew Conway, set up by the full-back, but as he touched down the clock ticked past 80 and Racing were deservedly home.
"I'm incredibly proud of the team and the way they kept their heads, possibly you could (concede) 50 in a situation like that but we stuck to our plan," Van Graan said.
"I thought we got a bit of ascendancy in the second half and after 60 minutes I thought we had one or two opportunities.
"I thought the last 10 minutes we created multiple opportunities and like I said, the clock caught us unfortunately.
"I've learned an incredible lot about myself and the coaching team, the players, the management and the club, and maybe just a word to all those supporters, we couldn't ask for anything more and the players gave their all but unfortunately we just came up short."
That will haunt them for another year as they go back to the beginning and go through all of the steps to getting back to this point.
The defeat to Racing will hurt every bit as much as last year's loss to Saracens, particularly if they are forced to endure Leinster lifting the title in three weeks' time.
On paper, getting to a semi-final is a good return for a side punching above their weight in terms of budget but that won't count for much.
RACING 92 - L Dupichot (D Carter 56); T Thomas, V Vakatawa (J Rokocoko 59), H Chavancy, M Andreu; P Lambie, M Machenaud (capt )(T Iribaren 73); E Ben Arous (V Kakovin 51-79), C Chat (D Szarzewski 51),C Gomes Sa (V Afatia 51-79); D Ryan, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, B Le Roux (B Chouzenoux 56),Y Nyanga (A Claasen 59).
MUNSTER - A Conway; K Earls, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton (S Zebo 43); I Keatley(JJ Hanrahan 53), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 43), N Scannell (R Marshall 43), S Archer (J Ryan 43-60); J Kleyn (G Grobler 60), B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt), J O'Donoghue (R Copeland 53), CJ Stander.
Ref - JP Doyle (England)