By Padraic Ryan
Munster fought valiantly but were undone by a high penalty count and the sheer ferocity of Toulon as they fell to an agonising 24-16 defeat in their Heineken Cup semi-final.
The sides exchanged kicks in the first half, Ian Keatley slotting three from three for Munster and Jonny Wilkinson managing four from five penalties and a well-taken drop-goal.
Delon Armitage added three more for Toulon with a long-range effort just on half-time to ensure the sides went in with Toulon ahead 18-9.
When Simon Zebo scored a try in the 55th minute, the game sparked into life, Keatley adding the extras to narrow the gap to two points.
But shortly thereafter Keatley, who had a great afternoon overall, missed a long-range chance to put them ahead.
Keith Earls’ yellow card with a little over 15 minutes seemed as if it would put Munster under immense pressure, but they responded with a heroic effort, and put Toulon on the back foot.
With a little under ten minutes to go, Munster chose to kick to touch with a penalty, and failed to get anything from the resulting lineout, when a penalty kick would have put them within two points.
In the end Munster could not find a way through, and when Wilkinson added a penalty with a minute to go, it was clear that it was Toulon who would march on to face Saracens in the final on 24 May.
Munster will rue silly errors that gifted Toulon at least six of their first-half points, and Rob Penney’s men failed to take advantage of a ten-minute numerical advantage after Toulon’s Juan Fernandez Lobbe was shown a yellow card.
Lobbe’s leg came into contact with Conor Murray’s head at a ruck, and though referee Wayne Barnes judged that there was not intent to make contact, after consulting with the TMO he sent Lobbe to the bin.
In the second half, Munster held on by the skin of their teeth, a superb covering tackle from Zebo preventing a certain Steffon Armitage try, and James Downey making a crucial intervention when Danie Rossouw was thundering towards the line.
Munster brought the game to life in the 55th minute when Murray peeled off the back of a maul before unleashing Zebo, who withstood the tackles of two Toulon players to touch down. Keatley slotted the conversion to narrow the gap to two points.
Thereafter, Munster fought gamely, but always had a mountain to climb and came up agonisingly short.