However, the arc of McGahan’s tenure, and the feeling with which he was regarded by Munster fans, changed unalterably over the space of eighty minutes.
You Missed Your Shot
On the back of that big quarter-final win over the Ospreys and all those Lions call-ups, Munster went into the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster as huge favourites. Having whipped Leinster 18-0 in the RDS at the start of the season and beaten them just as handily in Thomond Park in the Magner’s League [22-5, a 17 point margin], they were almost unbackable.
However, Leinster [not exactly lacking in class either, with O’Driscoll, Fitzgerald, Kearney and Heaslip all South Africa-bound themselves, and Rocky Elsom having one of the greatest seasons in the history of seasons] were far hungrier, smarter and more precise on the day and thrashed the reigning champions 25-6 in front of over 82,200 fans at Croke Park. It was a tough pill to swallow for Munster fans, tougher because they had been so confident of winning. The odious Niall Kiely wrote a famously smug article in the Irish Times about Munster superiority in the lead up to the match, and as the game unfolded the panning Sky Sports cameras found face after face articulating the various stages of disbelief.
An often-voiced sentiment amongst Munster fans is that they “left that one behind”. There are two schools of thought on that. After an almost all-Munster pack saw Ireland over the line against Wales [Denis Leamy coming on very early in the match for an injured Stephen Ferris to make it seven Munster forwards on the pitch for the majority of the game] and with ROG’s drop-goal clinching Ireland’s first Grand Slam in sixty-odd years, after the brilliant display of rugby against the Ospreys at home in the quarters, and after their players’ individual excellence had been validated by being selected for the Lions tour of South Africa by a well-respected neutral, there were many factors that indicated that Munster were the best team in Europe.
However, cup rugby is a different beast, and despite being about the most experienced cup team on the continent, they got taken to the cleaners on the day when it counted most.
The second school of thought asks how you can ‘leave something behind’ that you were never near reaching. Not only did Leinster clean them out on the day [outscoring the champions three tries to zero] in a semi-final – not a final – but the Dublin-based province also won the next four matches between the sides.
In the face of such a shock hammering, people look for answers. What just happened? What went wrong? Some people looked for reasons, some for excuses, some for scapegoats. McGahan was the easy option.
How do you explain the turnaround from the two previous games between the sides? How do you explain the drop-off in performance from the Ospreys game? How do you explain an experienced Munster cup team not performing well in a semi-final? How do you explain Leinster having more hunger and grit than Munster?
McGahan found a whole lot of fingers pointed at him. The mood of his time at Munster had changed irrevocably.