THEY gave it everything, they were cheered off by their fans at the end, but the harsh edge of competitive sport cut Munster deep once again when it came to the crunch.
In truth, whatever outside chance they had of upsetting the odds disappeared before the game kicked off when Joey Carbery and Keith Earls were ruled out through injury. The Red Army turned up more in hope than expectation, hugely outnumbering the Saracens support who may have decided to save their powder for May’s final in Newcastle.
The North London outfit are a relatively small club compared to the likes of Leicester or Wasps, yet the bizarre spectacle of the away support outnumbering the designated home team seems symptomatic of a sport that feels like its suffering from oversaturation beyond the blue chip tournaments of the Six Nations and World Cup.
Both Johann van Graan and Peter O’Mahony conceded as much in their assessments post-match, their side gave their all but were soundly beaten by the better team on the day.
There is a glass ceiling that seven successive attempts haven’t been able to smash through – Munster now haven’t won a semi-final since beating Saracens at the same venue eleven years ago – and for all their endeavour, the same questions keep returning about a lack of creativity and guile.
Despite going into the interval just three points adrift, Munster were hanging on with some effective yet draining defence in scorching heat for April.
The first-half was energy sapping and they did well to hang in there with precision goal-kicking but the pressure told in the end and once Michael Rhodes strode over the line unopposed at the start of the second-half, Munster had a mountain to climb.
To their credit they hit back with Darren Sweetnam’s try generating the biggest roar of the afternoon but they just didn’t have the tools to hurt Saracens who comfortably absorbed first phase ball to leave Munster short on options and desperately needed momentum.
Owen Farrell stood out, his ability to read the game and steer his team into the right areas of the field simply wasn’t matched on the other side. Tyler Bleyendaal’s big chance came and went, lasting less than an hour the fly-half couldn’t stamp any authority on the game although to be fair the opportunities were limited. The disparity up front was telling and by the time Billy Vunipola touched down for his side’s second, the race was long run.
The real concern though for the thousands of fans setting off in the Coventry evening is whether this is as good as it’s going to get for the foreseeable future – is the widening financial disparity in Europe combined with their own financial straightjacket too great a hurdle for the two-time European champions?
It’s not just losing the likes of Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan but a paucity of marquee players now out of reach compared to a decade ago which hampers them. The likes of Christian Cullen, Doug Howlett or even Francis Saili wearing red seems more remote than ever and while the strategy of promoting Irish talent should always come first in a centralised union, it is arguable that the other provinces have done a better job blending local with international – James Lowe and Scott Fardy the obvious examples in Dublin.
When Keith Earls snatched victory in the Edinburgh quarter-final, it arguably saved van Graan his job – he was awarded a two-year contract extension shortly after – and certainly the former Springbok coach can only work with the tools that he is given.
Yet to make a success of his stay he will need to find a way to eke out every last drop of talent from his squad – if anything the pressure is more on Felix Jones as attack coach and Jerry Flannery working with the forwards.