Jerry Flannery attempts to fend off Irish team mate Gordon D’Arcy at Croke Park.

Jerry Flannery attempts to fend off Irish team mate Gordon D’Arcy at Croke Park.

No ifs. No buts. No pointing too accusatory a finger at Nigel Owens, even if he didn’t judge the breakdown as well as he ought to.

Quite simply, in no uncertain terms, the better team won before arguably the most colourful crowd that this wondrous venue has ever hosted.

Alas, the curtain has fallen on Munster’s reign as European champions and it will be Leinster flying the flag for Ireland in the Edinburgh final on May 23rd.

Rarely has Croker looked as well as it did at kick-off time on Saturday. A mass of red and blue adorned every nook of the stadium as the fans traded ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and ‘Molly Malone’ in song.

Drums were beaten on the paddock by musicians before both teams took to the fray. It was as if they were taking the pulse of 82,000-plus here gathered, with frayed nerves aplenty inside the ground.

Comparisons between the 2006 and 2009 semi-finals were impossible to avoid as Brian O’Driscoll touched down under the Hill 16 posts after intercepting a Ronan O’Gara pass to end this Heineken Cup tie as a contest.

Trevor Halstead scored the final try of the ’06 semi-final in similar circumstances, as Munster raced away to a victory that they thoroughly deserved, even if the margin of victory that day slightly flattered them.

Leinster’s 19-point win before a world record attendance for a club rugby fixture was totally and utterly merited. Not even the most myopic Munster fan could begrudge them their victory such was the quality and discipline of their performance.

How ironic, that in the week in which Munster seized the Magners League from Leinster’s grasp that Leinster in turn ended Munster’s reign as Heineken Cup kingpins.

No rhythm

From the off, Munster struggled to find rhythm. Felipe Contepomi, as his wont in this particular head to head, missed a penalty he never really believed he could score from after five minutes.

Six minutes later, Keith Earls danced through the Leinster defensive line after a sumptuous offload from Lifeimi Mafi, Munster’s best player over the course of the 80 minutes.

Yards from the line, the centre was bulldozed to the deck by the superb Rocky Elsom, whom Leinster will move heaven and earth to keep during the close season.

Even when Cian Healy was binned for bodychecking Ian Dowling, Munster failed to make their numerical advantage count, although Ronan O’Gara brought the sides level in reply to Contepomi’s drop goal.

As the game wore on, you waited for Munster to put their traditional stamp on proceedings, but when they did retain the ball, they were met by a wall of blue.

As they had against Harlequins, Leinster defended as if their lives depended on every single hit, with Elsom, O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip mightily weighing in.

And despite disrupting the Leinster lineout, Munster didn’t make their successes count the way their fans have become accustomed to.

And they proved jittery in possession, making decisions with the ball in hand they wouldn’t make when composed and in control.

On the half-hour, Gordon D’Arcy bounded his way over the whitewash after fine work by full-back Isa Nacewa. It was now abundantly clear that the bookies had got it wrong and badly wrong at that. Leinster meant business.

Despite neither enjoying the sort of control nor applying the pressure they’re used to, Munster stubbornly remained in contention, as O’Gara’s 36th minute penalty reduced the margin to just five points.

You felt that Munster had to begin brightly when the action resumed, but it just never came together for Tony McGahan’s men. They never got into match-winning gear, for which one has to compliment Leinster such was the efficacy of their approach.

Four minutes in, Luke Fitzgerald touched down for Leinster’s second try, which Jonathan Sexton converted. There was now daylight between the sides and it was glaringly evident Munster had to get moving – and fast.

Ten minutes of exerted Munster pressure followed, as they laid siege inside the Leinster 22, but Michael Cheika’s team refused to buckle.

Just past the half-hour, the same time they scored in the first half, Leinster ended the game as a contest when man of the match Brian O’Driscoll intercepted Ronan O’Gara’s pass to surge clear for their third try. Game over.

No disgrace

To Munster’s credit, they didn’t give up. Neither did Leinster, who retained their intensity in the contact zone to shut Munster out for the full 40 minutes.

Defeat is always a shock when one is so accustomed to victory in the manner that Munster have achieved in recent seasons. But there is no disgrace in losing to a team that performs at its absolute optimum the way Leinster did.

Munster’s greatest regret is that they did not produce the rugby we know they are capable of. But this defeat is now a chip on their shoulder, a reversal that will burn them long and deep into the summer.

Their top priority for next season was always going to be Europe. This defeat will surely mean a redoubling of efforts in an attempt to reclaim what has become the province’s Holy Grail.

A below-par display to Llanelli in 2007 marked Munster’s previous surrender of this trophy.

The feelings in the dressing room on Saturday will surely not have been a million miles away from how they felt that night two years ago, knowing that their season was over, that their objective hadn’t been achieved.

Life goes on. Munster will rise again. They now, once more, find themselves with something to stand up and fight for. And as sure as night follows day, their story shall continue and they will have a most willing audience to urge them on once more.