'We just didn't play anywhere near our best rugby'
The Big Interview: Sam Arnold
It was an awesome ascent to start at centre for Munster in a Champions Cup semi-final, but Sammy Arnold found the defeat, and fall that followed, far too humbling.
Johann van Graan's side departed Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport with their loyal fans cheering them to the plane. However, after a 27-22 loss at Stade Chaban-Delmas it was another upsetting journey home.
"We were all so gutted after the game and then we came into the airport and we had the thousands and thousands of fans clapping us and cheering for us. It was absolutely unbelievable," says Arnold.
"I actually felt a bit embarrassed that they were being so good to us after the display we put out there. It goes to show how good the Munster support are.
"They are incredible and they always stick by their team through thick and thin."
And those fans have suffered heartbreak on and off the pitch in recent years, but right now the loss to Donnacha Ryan's Racing 92 is most pertinent.
For Arnold, he began 2017-'18 with Ulster Bank League Division 1A outfit Garryowen, and his dramatic rise and progress saw him lock down a midfield berth for his adopted province.
The 22-year-old London-born and raised youngster joined Ulster in 2015, and after his subsequent arrival in Limerick last season, injury meant he only played once for Munster.
Arnold made his debut in an impressive 80-minute showing against Benetton Rugby at Thomond Park in November 2016, but that was all he could manage in his first campaign.
A succession of knee injuries cost him minutes with the senior side, but Arnold did help the Munster 'A' side to lift an historic B&I Cup title.
This season Arnold finally began to get some luck on the injury front, and with five tries in 15 appearances, he has been prolific.
The former Ballynahinch clubman has established a formidable centre partnership alongside Rory Scannell. Both players have been involved in the Irish set-up recently, while Jaco Taute and Chris Farrell remain out with injury.
But Arnold would have preferred another season progressing slowly behind the scenes, rather than having to experience last weekend's painful defeat from centre stage.
"It was a strange season for me personally. I started off in the AIL with Garryowen and ended up in a Champions Cup semi-final. It was pretty surreal," says Arnold.
"It didn't make the loss any easier last weekend though. I would probably rather to not have any involvement if we would have reached the European final or won the thing instead.
"But it is the way it is and you have to get on with it. You have to move on and keep progressing as a player."
It's been a tough week for the province but Ulster await in a massive inter-provincial derby at Thomond Park tomorrow.
The knockout stages of the Guinness PRO14 await, but it's important for Munster to gain momentum ahead of the quarter-finals, as they aim to win their first piece of silverware since 2011.
"Everyone is pretty flat after the game against Racing. We are disappointed as a group and we know what we put out there on the pitch was not a fair reflection of what we can do on our day," adds Arnold.
"Once we had all of the injuries this year we have been doubted all over the place, and people didn't give us a hope against Toulon in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
"It hurts a lot right now. But you have to stomach it, bottle up that feeling, and make sure that it doesn't happen again.
"We have met that Racing team a lot and we thought we had a real chance of getting into a European final this time.
"But on the day Racing just started off hot and Teddy Thomas and a few of their other backs were on fire. It was tough to deal with but we just didn't play anywhere near our best rugby this time.
"It is a bit of a tough pill to swallow but we can't really mope around about it. We have a PRO14 quarter-final on the way, and before that we want to get back on the horse against Ulster this weekend.
"It's been a season of ups and downs. We had a big change in the coaching staff in the middle of the season. The way the new coaches came in it has been unbelievable. They have fitted straight in and guys have taken to them like a duck to water. They have been unbelievable.
"The PRO14 is the sole ambition for us here at Munster now. We are going to be giving it absolutely everything to try and get some silverware."
Arnold qualifies to play for Ireland through his Irish mother, Jackie, and he has played ten times for the Ireland U-20s in the past.
And with his brilliant form this season, a place on the summer tour to Australia has become a distinct possibility. But a place in Joe Schmidt's plan isn't something Arnold is dwelling on just yet.
"I haven't thought about Ireland a lot. When I was younger I would have tried to look ahead a bit and it never worked out for me," says Arnold.
"Robbie Henshaw is back playing and playing well now. And there is a lot of good centres at the moment. I just want to take it one game at a time now. Especially after the way things worked out last weekend.
"I just want to get back playing as soon as possible and take it one game at a time."
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