It was a night of fairytales and heartbreak in the Pro14 final last Saturday evening, where Leinster continued their dominance over all Celtic competitors.
From a Munster perspective, everyone felt that now was the time to overturn Leinster. It was time to give Billy Holland the success his career deserved, but instead, it was opposing second-row, Devin Toner, who marked the day as Leinster's most capped player with a fourth Guinness Pro14 title on the bounce.
Many felt like the stars were aligning for Munster leading into this one. They had pulled off an almost Leinster-like route to the final, togging out 53 players on their path and running away with their conference.
Only Ulster and Leinster themselves had gotten the better of the southern province all year, and considering the number of players that were rested going up north, Munster were happy enough to return home with their bonus point that day.
Leinster, however, are a different animal to anyone else in this league. They trumped Munster’s 53 players by using 57 of their own throughout the campaign.
Despite an uncharacteristic loss to the Ospreys, and some early pressure at the start of the league due to being behind with their games, nothing really fazed Leo Cullen's side.
They romped home in the other conference, creating daylight between themselves and Ulster by racking up bonus points almost every week.
Munster have come a long way in terms of development. Their attack game grew under Stephen Larkham to move away from the bash and kick that we’ve seen in the last couple of years and now we were seeing some intricate back play, following destruction from the likes of Gavin Coombes and his west Cork compatriots.
Yet, it’s the same story when the league is over. The game plan was never developed enough during the season to allow Munster to stick with it when the going got tough.
They never found a way to breach the Leinster defensive line, apart from Coombes rumbling through on one occasion, where Leinster scrambled ferociously to keep Keith Earls in the air and turn the ball over immediately.
The defence that has been so strong all year, struggled for the opening 30 minutes. You can’t question the desire in Munster’s physical tackle or the power of their scramble.
Former Munster prop BJ Botha tells @GameOn2FM that he believes the province remain on the right track under Johann van Graan in the wake of Saturday's #Pro14 final defeat to Leinster #RTERugby pic.twitter.com/eysPG6AAYc— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) March 29, 2021
Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander and Coombes all put in bone-crunching tackles on the opposition, so the physicality couldn't be called into question. Damien De Allande put in his own shuddering hits but didn’t command the centre of the pitch during the opening half.
Maybe he was watching Robbie Henshaw in the Six Nations, or maybe he was looking after Joey Carbery inside him, who clearly found the step-up to the top of the league a tough ask after such a long time out of the game.
You'd be wondering why their World Cup winning midfielder [De Allende] can’t get to grips with him [Henshaw]
The Munster defensive system let them down at times. When the midfield tried to shut down the Leinster loop plays that they’ve become synonymous with, Henshaw would simply carry at Carbery and create quick ball, well over the gain line.
If De Allande stepped in to help Carbery, the ball was shifted out the back and cleared to wider channels for Keenan and company to run into.
When the decision making is that clinical, it’s very hard to have control over the defensive side of the game.
From an Irish point of view, it’s great to see someone like Henshaw having such an influence over proceedings. For Johann van Graan and his coaching team, you would be wondering why their World Cup-winning midfielder can’t get to grips with him.
Leinster used the same attacking weapon a number of times; a rock-solid scrum, punch up close to that set-piece to put Carbery scrambling backwards, then a quick carry while Munster were retreating or tied into a scrum.
Of course, this only works when your first carry goes forward, and that’s the reason why Henshaw was central to the Leinster game-plan.
His rivals for player of the match were team-mates Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, with the Leinster number 8 Conan taking home the award following on from an impressive return to Test action against England.
Both players made huge plays throughout the game, dominating the gain line and creating line breaks. What is daunting for their rivals is the fact that in a full-strength Leinster side, these guys probably don’t get to start.
Missing from that back row are Caelan Doris, Will Connors, Dan Leavy, Scott Penny and Max Deegan - an absolute embarrassment of riches.
Uncharacteristically, Leinster wasted three or four chances in the first half and the visitors were able to claw their way back to a 6-6 game, despite little to no dominance throughout the first period.
Already, there are accusations that the men in red didn’t take their points, which is a repeat offence. It's not one I would subscribe to, however.
Yes, Carbery miscued one from the tee, but that kick was quickly won back and the same points were scored. Had he kicked the first one, they would have been back in their own half with a restart.
Conor Murray had a long-range effort, which is just that, an attempt to put something on the scoreboard. It wasn’t a dead cert, and much less so than the Ross Byrne miss. Let’s not talk about the defeat being due to missed points from the tee.
The defeat was because there wasn’t enough created in attack, not enough shots fired and that’s the repeat offender in this fixture for Munster.
Leinster are well out in front of everyone, not just their Irish rivals
JJ Hanrahan and Rory Scannell brought some direction and zip to the Munster attack late on, which makes you wonder why it took so long to make any changes when an injection of pace was clearly needed, yet the desperation in their attack shone through at that stage.
They were clearly chasing the game and mistakes crept in. It’s hard to judge the team on the final 20 minutes, despite the close nature of the scoreboard, Leinster were well in control and nobody would have stopped them from there.
It won’t be much consolation to Munster or their supporters, but Leinster are well out in front of everyone, not just their Irish rivals. The competition for a final spot really only tells you who’s the best of the rest. Leinster are in a league of their own.
The European campaign now holds extra importance to determine how much trouble the Pro14 is in. You could fool yourself into believing in the Irish dominance this year, but the Welsh and Scottish sides were very poor.
If Leinster don’t go very close to winning the Champions Cup, it will once again show how far off the Pro14 is.
That’s not to rule out a reaction from Munster in Europe, however, it could be a very short turnaround from title hopefuls to the end of their season. Toulouse will bring a similar level of pace and power but with a different level of unpredictability.
Munster are on the right path, but Leinster are further down the track and catching them seems as distant as ever for the rest of the Irish provinces.
Follow Leinster v Toulon (5.30pm, Friday) and Munster v Toulouse (3pm, Saturday) in Champions Cup action via our live blogs on RTE.ie and the RTÉ News app or listen live on RTÉ 2fm's Game On and RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport.