Munster have failed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 13 years after slumping to a 32-16 loss to Toulon.
Half-backs Jonny Wilkinson and Pierre Mignoni drove Toulon to a 26-9 half-time advantage, with Munster lock Donncha O’Callaghan sin-binned shortly before the break.
Wingers Christian Loamanu and Paul Sackey scored first half tries at a noisy Stade Felix Mayol, and any hopes of a Munster comeback evaporated when Ronan O’Gara was yellow carded in the 49th minute.
England out-half Wilkinson finished with 22 points as the big-spending French outfit reached the knock-out stages in their first year in the competition.
Lying two points behind leaders Toulon heading into this pivotal Pool 3 clash, Tony McGahan’s men knew it was win or bust if they wanted to retain their interest in this season’s Heineken Cup.
Paul O’Connell returned from suspension to take his place in the starting line-up and the 2,000-plus Munster fans who made the trip to the south of France would have been hoping the talismanic lock could inspire another big performance.
The visitors started the game with serious intent and after Toulon were penalised for illegally holding up a Munster attack, O’Gara tapped over the opening points.
That score seemed to spur Toulon into action, however, and Munster had to scramble to prevent them from getting over in the right corner.
But Philippe Saint-Andre’s side stole the ball from the first scrum of the game and Wilkinson levelled the scores from the penalty that followed.
Munster’s difficulties in the scrum were becoming all too clear as the game wore on and Wilkinson punished another infraction to give Toulon a 6-3 lead on the quarter hour.
After a promising start, the men in red were now having difficulty getting out of their own half and Wilkinson soon put Toulon further in front.
Team captain Joe van Niekerk was at the heart of Toulon’s efforts up front, where they were winning the breakdown battle.
Wilkinson then missed a chance from distance but with referee Dave Pearson signalling for another penalty, Toulon took full advantage the next time they reached the Munster 22.
The wily Mignoni chipped over the top and winger Loamanu leaped to gather the ball and score in the left corner. Wilkinson added the extras to give Toulon a commanding 16-3 lead after 24 minutes’ play.
O’Gara immediately reduced the arrears, but Munster’s hopes of getting back in touch were dealt a huge below when O’Callaghan needlessly took a Toulon player out as he chased a kick through.
Once again Toulon made the advantage count by exploiting the extra space. Mignoni made a half-break into the 22, and play was swept wide to the right where Sackey touched down after some poor tackling from Keith Earls and Johne Murphy.
O’Gara replied with a penalty but a tactically poor Munster were still 17 points behind at the interval. Wilkinson put Toulon 29-9 ahead with a penalty shortly after the restart.
Munster’s frustrations were getting the better of them and they suffered a further setback when O’Gara was harshly sin-binned after tangling off the ball with Mignoni.
Wilkinson then extended Toulon’s lead before prop Davit Kubriashvili was yellow carded in the final quarter, but Munster still could not make any inroads.
Flanker David Wallace, arguably Munster’s best player on a day to forget, scored a consolation try with three minutes remaining. He fended off two tackles before scooting over in the left corner, and O’Gara added the conversion.
But the result had been decided well before that as one of European rugby’s superpowers made a disappointing exit from the pool.
Speaking afterwards, Paul O’Connell conceded: “Toulon did the simple things well and they capitalised on our mistakes. Our own ill-discipline didn’t help and it’s been a theme for us throughout the season.
“It’s not the end of an era. With great players coming through, young talent emerging and quality players out injured, I think we’re a great side that are just not playing well.
“We’re certainly at a crossroads but we just need to find our way again.”
Giving his assessment, Ronan O’Gara added: “Munster still have a lot to offer. We have to regroup and hopefully come back better.
“They out played us and fully deserve the chance to go into the quarter-finals. The better team won, fair play to Toulon, it’s what rugby is all about.
“We fell short everywhere, we were way off the pace. There’s no second chance and it’s hugely disappointing for us and our supporters.”