Bit by bit Munster's season turns to dust. They've still got the Magners League, sure, but even that would be modest compensation for their painful European failures.
If the Heineken Cup exposed them as a side in decline, there was something even more alarming about yesterday's Challenge Cup exit. They were beaten by a side without fear and showing not even a hint of respect. At Thomond Park too. How often have we seen such nerve?
From Munster there was the customary heart and willingness to put their bodies on the line. But we assume that as a given every time. The shock yesterday was in discovering how little it counted for. They were simply inept in the first half, lucky to trail by seven points at half-time. Better in the second half, yet still out-scored by a point. Harlequins were more clinical and superior in almost every aspect of the game. They made Munster look tired and out-dated.
Munster's reputation at Thomond Park is built on their innate ability to intimidate and establish control from the first whistle. Rarely can they have seemed so toothless. They were subdued and diffident, lacking any shred of authority. Eight minutes in Ronan O'Gara pumped a long raking kick into touch on the full and ceded a dangerous lineout on his own 22. It was an illustration of O'Gara's inability to exert any influence on the game. The bottom line was that he needed ball to be able to do so. Precious little was forthcoming.
The surprise in George Robson's opening try for Harlequins wasn't in the score itself, but in how Munster facilitated it. Gonzalo Camacho had possession on the Munster 22, but there were enough defenders between him and the line not to suspect imminent danger. But both Paul Warwick and Doug Howlett sold themselves too easily, and when the ball was fed out to the other wing, Robson had the freedom of the park to touch down.
Incredibly, the game was so one-sided that it wasn't outlandish to suggest Harlequins might have pushed themselves out of sight. Three times they worked excellent positions close to the Munster line and only desperate defending kept them at bay on each occasion. Nick Evans criminally cost them six points by missing two penalties he'd have expected to convert. In all that time Munster created just a single opening, which was squandered by a Felix Jones's knock-on just six metres short of the line.
It was the basics that let them down time and time again. Damien Varley somehow managed to throw successive lineouts to Harlequins' flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu, and that was a neat summary of their fortunes. It was ironic, then, that it was from a lineout that Munster fashioned a try for Jones on the brink of half-time, a badly-needed score that cancelled out Danny Care's nimble touchdown five minutes earlier. Now they could go in for the break feeling slightly good about themselves.
It was no surprise that Tony McGahan used the interval to make radical changes to the side. On came Paul O'Connell, John Hayes and Sam Tuitupou and the improvement was instant. O'Connell's first act was to deliver solid ball from a Varley throw and the home crowd roared their approval. Still, Harlequins remained alert and composed. Rory Clegg had replaced the injured Evans and kicked them further in front. The gap now was 10.
It was soon 13 when Clegg punished another infraction at the breakdown and Munster had 20 minutes to dig themselves out of a deep hole. Nothing they haven't managed before, of course, but for all the urgency they showed, Harlequins never seemed that ruffled or looked likely to fold tamely. Nick Easter picked up a second yellow card when he stupidly strayed the wrong side of a ruck, but that was out of kilter with the sense of discipline and organisation they showed right through to the end.
Munster kept pushing and the crowd kept urging them on, venting their fury with increasing volume at the decisions of French referee Roman Poite. Poite twice ruled out Howlett tries, but the replays clearly showed that the final pass had been forward on both occasions.
Harlequins were happy to let Munster power through the phases and then halt their progress at the critical moment. Howlett came close again when trying to gather his own chip-kick, but full-back Mike Brown was quickly across to deny him.
And when the New Zealand winger finally made it over for a legitimate try there were only three minutes remaining and, for Munster to stay alive, they needed O'Gara to nail a difficult conversion from close to the right touchline.
O'Gara had done it so many times in the past that you wouldn't have bet against him managing it but, into a tricky cross-wind, the ball drifted across the posts and wide.
Munster's day was done and their season had taken another downward spiral.
Scorers -- Munster: Howlett, Jones tries; O'Gara con. Harlequins: Care try, con; Robson try; Clegg 2 pens; Evans con.
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett, L Mafi, P Warwick (S Tuitupou h-t), K Earls (J Murphy 64); R O'Gara, C Murray (P Stringer 56); W Du Preez, D Varley (M Sherry 73), T Buckley (J Hayes h-t); D O'Callaghan (D Ryan 67), M O'Driscoll (P O'Connell h-t); D Leamy, D Wallace, J Coughlan.
Harlequins: M Brown; G Camacho, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Moyne; N Evans (R Clegg 44), D Care; J Marler (C Jones 65), J Gray, J Johnston; O Kohn (T Vellejos 72), G Robson; M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw, N Easter.
Referee: R Poite (France).
Sunday Indo Sport