Hope turned to despair in 22 minutes

A five point game on paper, but it was never really that close.

A European semi-final in the French sun, and an all-Irish final the prize on offer; everything felt right. It felt like Munster’s day. It felt like Bordeaux 2000 and Castres 2002, when the red army descended on the south of France and came home red-faced, but only from the sun-burn.

22 minutes later, it was effectively done.

Whether it was the heat or the occasion or simply the fact the opposition turned it up to 11, Munster couldn’t live with Racing in those opening 20-odd minutes.

Every collision sent a Munster man backwards, every angle of running looked perfect, every gamble in attack paid off.

Teddy Thomas looked like a man dying to prove a point (although the chances he’s even aware that Neil Francis said you can’t trust a rugby player who wears his hair in a bun, are slim to none). Every time he touched the ball in the first half, it looked like something would happen, and most times, something did happen. He coasted over the line on three occasions, touching down twice, cheekily popping the ball up for Maxime Machenaud to score on the third.

Munster were rattled from the start, summed up by Ian Keatley and Rory Scannell snapping two dropgoal attempts with the score at 7-0. They missed their tackles and overthrew their passes and lost the contests on the ground. They made the scoreline look better in the second half, with the likes of Simon Zebo and Robin Copeland impressing greatly off the bench, but by that stage Racing were happy to soak up the pressure. Like a game of cricket, they declared on 27, and gave the ball to their opponents. Munster regained some pride in the form of a couple of late boundaries, reducing the margin to just five points, but Racing were comfortable winners.

It’s a sixth semi-final defeat in 10 years for Munster, and while the disappointment will no doubt linger, reaching the last four of the competition, having lost their influential coaching team mid-season, is a nice foundation for Johan van Graan to build on.

However, the gulf between Munster and their neighbours Leinster looks to be getting greater. As good as Racing were at times today, their weaknesses are bound to be exposed better in the final in Bilbao.

Even compared to the standards they set in 2009 and 2011 and 2012, this Leinster side just look special. From number 1 to 23, and even those sitting in the stand in their match-day suits, it’s hard to find a weakness. From day one they’ve looked like the team to beat, and nobody has done it yet.

They’ve blown teams apart like the Scarlets and Saracens and Glasgow. When the chips were down against Exeter and Monpellier they adapted and ground it out. They’ve been a team for all weather and all occasions.

They’ve got youth in James Ryan and Garry Ringrose and Dan Leavy. They’ve got experience in Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa and the signing-of-the-season Scott Fardy. They’ve got their fair share of injuries, and they’ve still got a bench stacked with international caps.

They look by some distance to be the best team in Europe, and now they have their chance to prove it.