It definitely won’t seem so to Leinster players, coaches, staff and supporters, but that was a damned good season for Irish rugby and just one game – indeed one score – away from being well-nigh perfect.
For Leinster would gladly have swapped beating La Rochelle last Saturday week to earn that coveted fifth star in exchange for the URC semi-final defeat by Munster a week before. And Munster ending their 12-year trophy drought is good for business. It’s good for them and healthier for Irish rugby than having one all-dominant team.
And had both eventualities come to pass on foot of an unbeaten season for Ireland, including a Grand Slam sealed for the first time in Dublin, and also with Ulster and Connacht ensuring all four provinces qualified for the URC knock-out stages and next season’s Champions Cup, then it really could have been labelled the greatest Irish season ever.
But the one that got away and yet by the same token somehow just won’t go away means that it cannot be filed thus. Instead, it is superseded by the 2008-09 campaign, when Ireland’s Grand Slam was backed up by Leinster winning their first Champions Cup and Munster winning the Magners League – albeit a consolation prize to which a glass was barely raised in acknowledgment compared to the celebrations of the last few days.
Partly for that reason, it always felt that even the 2008-09 season was eclipsed by 2017-18, when Ireland’s Grand Slam was augmented by Leinster completing a Champions Cup/Pro14 double, as they’d done five seasons previously. Furthermore, of course, Ireland completed their calendar year by beating the All Blacks on home soil for the first time ever.
The trophyless thing was always a handy stick to beat over Munster’s heads as the drought went on towards double figures, and into an 11th season, and then this season a 12th. It’s all very well being one of the biggest names and brands in the global game, and attracting big-name players and marquee opposition, but that carries only so much weight and curries so much favour if a generation can come and go without adding to their history of achievements.
At times it has probably felt that their history was almost too much of a weight on their shoulders. Continuous semi-final and final defeats in both the Champions Cup and what is now the URC were compounded by the golden era of 2005-06 to 2007-08 when twice reaching their Holy Grail.
Yet each season every player in the squad redoubled their efforts and vowed to go again, to do justice to the famous crest and red jersey, to create their own history and pictures for the walls in their HPC.
This is partly what drove successive Munster teams to 10 semi-finals and three finals in the decade following that Magners League triumph over Leinster at Thomond Park in 2011. Reaching 10 semi-finals and three finals actually takes some doing. Yet all it ever seemed to earn Munster players and coaches was criticism and disappointment, along with a few losers’ medals.
All those near-misses, especially for long-serving foot-soldiers such as Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Stephen Archer and Niall Scannell, will have made last Saturday’s victory over the Stormers in Cape Town and the ensuing celebrations all the sweeter.
It certainly eclipses Munster’s Celtic League triumph in 2003, and Magners League wins of 2009 and 2011.
The first of those, when beating Neath 37-17 in front of 30,000-plus in Cardiff, felt like scant consolation for the two Heineken Cup final losses in the previous three years.
Munster’s 2009 “triumph” was confirmed when the Ospreys beat the Dragons without a bonus point on a Thursday night, which was somewhat overshadowed by their upcoming Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster at Croke Park two days later. Whoopee!
Even their joyously celebrated 19-9 win in the 2011 final over Leinster came a week after the latter’s memorable Heineken Cup final win over Northampton, and besides, no one foresaw 11 trophyless seasons.
Besides, with the advent of the URC, this is an altogether tougher competition to win now than back then. Although it was all achieved on the road over the last two months, there was no doubting the enormous sense of occasion and the scale of the achievement this Munster team completed in Cape Town.
It’s also a good result for the fledgling United Rugby Championship. As even the Stormers’ head coach John Dobson admitted, last season’s all-South African final was something of an anticlimax – and that was in South Africa, never mind for the rest of us.
Munster’s unexpected but thrilling triumph has added another to the growing list of new rivalries and, at a stroke, made winning the competition next season far more coveted. Imagine, for starters, how Leinster might approach another semi-final against Munster next season were it to transpire.
Barely three weeks ago Munster faced a decidedly circuitous route to the URC title in the fall-out of their Champions Cup last-16 shredding by the Sharks, while Leinster moved to within three games of the double. It would have seemed utterly inconceivable that not only would Munster end their trophy drought but that Leinster would end up trophyless for the second season running.
Ronan O’Gara having needlessly highlighted Leinster’s mental baggage from previous final defeats, it may have felt to some as if Munster’s win was further rubbing their noses in it.
The nature of the defeat by La Rochelle has again prompted concerns that O’Gara and his bruising team have provided a template for opponents to derail Ireland at the World Cup, even if Leinster are not Ireland, nor vice versa. We were also told the same last year, but it didn’t prevent Farrell and co refocusing the squad to complete a historic series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, nor beating South Africa last November and going on to win a Grand Slam.
It also seems grossly unfair that one or two defeats can define a season, and thus deem it a failure. Leinster played 28 games, won 24, drew one and lost three, scoring 134 tries at not far off five per game. Their brilliant rugby again this season also shouldn’t be forgotten. It shouldn’t all be entirely about the trophies or medals or stars. Maybe sometimes a team and an organisation can want something too much, that the obsession can become too magnificent.
But they’ll come again, even if World Cup seasons can be tricky. As Munster have long since known and Leinster are now discovering, absence makes the heart grow fonder.