The Scarlets' Heineken Cup is over, after the Welsh once again failed to find the necessary discipline to match their flair, succumbing to a 16-29 home defeat to Munster at Stradey Park on Saturday.
Rain had washed out most of Wales' collective sporting program this weekend, but there was a die-hard atmosphere around the packed old ground as the home team faced the first of four must-win matches.
Not only was there rain to contend with - it started falling in sheets again not long after the kick-off - but also a vicious wind which the Scarlets found in their faces in the first half. Then there was the hailstorm which hit the ground ten minutes into the second half and prompted referee Wayne Barnes to halt the game for a couple of minutes. "It's not a concern for player safety as such," he said to the captains as he explained the pause. "All I want is to be able to see." How did he think we felt on the sidelines?! It was a thoroughly miserable day.
Still, those who worry that the Stradey Park site - soon to be a housing estate - might be susceptible to flood can think again. Considering how much moisture cascaded out of the skies the pitch itself held up remarkably well until the second half's deluges.
The same cannot be said for the current tenants. Tries and penalties continue to leak in a torrent from the Scarlets' defence, and it really is this that costs them so dear this season, for there was proof on show that there is nothing wrong with the attack. The Scarlets used to be so invincible at home in Europe too. How the climate is changing.
It was a pretty miserable game to match the conditions, but the weather caused enough unforced errors to at least make it exciting. High kicks were gusted away from waiting catchers, passes slithered out of mitts and onto the dank sods of Stradey turf, and opportunistic counter-attackers dived in with glee.
Referee Barnes did very well. He policed the rucks and mauls with a zero tolerance policy, making it clear that miscreants would not be able to blame the conditions for their offences. Thus the game-play, error-ridden though it was, was at least as open as could be possibly expected.
The penalty count for the first half was 5-2 in favour of Munster, really a very low count given the wet weather. All five penalties were nailed by Ronan O'Gara, who utilised the wind at his back flawlessly. His first two were in the opening quarter of an hour, and then came the first real moment of magic, when Gavin Evans made a half break and popped a pass to Dwayne Peel.
Peel raced away, but was brilliantly caught five metres short of the line by Lifiemi Mafi, who then ruined his good work by tumbling clumsily onto Peel and wrapping the ball up. He had kind of got to his feet a bit but... zero tolerance, remember? Mafi went to dry himself off for ten minutes, Rhys Priestland made it 6-3.
With Mafi off the pitch, the Scarlets reminded us of what they could really do. Mark Jones took a non-entity of a kick from Peter Stringer on his own 22 and tore diagonally across the pitch, out-stripping three players on the outside and making Rua Tipoki look silly with a swivel of the hips and step. Jones set Evans powering into the 22, and Regan King was on hand to finish in the corner. Priestland's conversion was just as majestic as the try: 10-6.
Those penalties and lapses and errors continued to haunt the Scarlets, as did the lack of punch in their tight five, and within eight minutes, O'Gara had Munster back in the lead at 12-10. Then came the two real game-turning moments.
First, Mafi broke clean through the Scarlets' defence, and then just as he had done to Peel in defence, so Mark Jones did unto him. Barnes did unto Jones what he had done unto Mafi for the same offence. O'Gara did unto the Scarlets what Priestland had done unto Munster as a result of Barnes' call. All very fair and just.
Shaun Payne slipped a tackle in his own 22 and smashed the ball 60m downfield with the wind. Kicking into the wind, Priestland could only manage 10m in reply. With the Scarlets retreating slowly, Peter Stringer snapped up the ball and chucked it in to David Wallace, who sauntered under the posts in front of a sea of gaping mouths. Replays did show that Stringer was a good couple of yards infield from touch when he threw the ball, but that doesn't exonerate the Scarlets' doziness.
O'Gara landed his fifth penalty on the stroke of half-time for a score of 22-10, pretty much a fair scoreline given the Munster pack's ascendancy.
The worse the weather got in the second half, the more basic the game became, thus exposing how much work still needs to be done on the basics in the Scarlets' pack. It is all very well having a talented back-line, but there can only be so many moments of broken play for them to manufacture scores on their own from. Otherwise they need service from up front. On Saturday, they spent most of the evening washing their eyes out and shivering in the cold as Munster took hold of the ball and refused to let it go. Munster had 75 per cent of the second-half possession. 'Nuff said.
With the wind, Priestland did at least give the Scarlets a sniff with a couple of penalties as Munster briefly lost rhythm, but the break for hail and the resulting increase in viscosity of the mud allowed Munster's uglies to get themselves properly dirty, and they did so with as much glee as effectiveness. After Priestland missed a third kick, the men in red - well with red flashes amid the brown - barely got their meat hooks on the ball again.
Marcus Horan drove over the line for the killer try with a quarter of an hour remaining, and as the pitch became heavier and boggier, so did both the Scarlets' efforts and the mood around Stradey Park. The Scarlets are out, but Munster's annual assault on Europe is still very much on track - they now top the Pool of death.
Man of the match: A collective effort for Munster's forwards. In that weather, anything beyond 10 phases of possession is pretty laudable, but 33?
For the Scarlets:
Pens: Priestland 3
Tries: Wallace, Horan
Cons: O'Gara 2
Pens: O'Gara 5
Yellow cards: Mafi (Munster, 18 killing the ball), Mark Jones (Scarlets, 33, Killing the ball), Manu (Scarlets, 66, reckless use of the boot)
Scarlets: 15 Morgan Stoddart, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Regan King, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Nathan Brew, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Dafydd Jones, 7 Gavin Thomas, 6 Simon Easterby (c), 5 Scott Macleod, 4 Adam Eustace, 3 Deacon Manu, 2 James Hayter, 1 Iestyn Thomas.
Replacements: 16 Daniel George, 17 Bruce Douglas, 18 Vernon Cooper, 19 Alix Popham, 20 Gavin Cattle, 21 Ceiron Thomas, 22 Jonathan Davies
Munster: 15 Shaun Payne, 14 Brian Carney, 13 Rua Tipoki, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Ian Dowling, 10 Ronan O'Gara (c), 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Anthony Foley, 7 David Wallace, 6 Denis Leamy, 5 Mick O'Driscoll, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan
Replacements: 16 Frankie Sheahan, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 James Coughlan, 20 Gerry Hurley, 21 Paul Warwick, 22 Kieran Lewis
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch judges: Tony Spreadbury (England), Peter Huckle (England)
Television match official: Geoff Warren (England)
By Danny Stephens