Munster close out season in grand style


Munster 19 Leinster 9:FOR MUNSTER, redemption borne out of their traditional guts and pride. For Leinster, a bridge too far. Three tries to nil and 21 wins in 24 matches brooks no argument. This trophy salvaged Munster’s season and was thoroughly deserved.

The huge passion of a humming full house, bedecked in red with a healthy sprinkling of blue, was matched on the pitch. Nothing was given, everything was earned and quality performances abounded.

By about 15 minutes from the end, Munster, although they had fallen 9-7 behind, had just about cracked Leinster’s resilience. The tipping point had been a near remorseless barrage of attacking rugby by Leinster, but which yielded just two penalties as Munster’s astonishing defensive effort kept their line intact.

The torch had been lit by Brian O’Driscoll. He had been laid out by Marcus Horan’s high shoulder charge off the ball in the first half – though that didn’t stop him popping up from treatment to tackle Ronan O’Gara as he passed by – when Leinster countered. O’Driscoll stood up Danny Barnes and took him on the outside to break clear, before weighing up his options, slowing down and angling his run infield to pop a one-handed reverse pass behind his back to Jonny Sexton on his outside – effectively taking out another two players.

Somehow, Munster withstood the ensuing siege. Their desire and organisation was incredible. Conor Murray, quick and strong, has improved with every game, taking less steps as he flings out quick long passes and he made one of several covering tackles before Felix Jones denied Jamie Heaslip as he put his body on the line, not for the first or last time. Munster have been visibly energised by these two young tyros and it’s probably in spells like that when Paul O’Connell is worth two players. Soon, he would have to be as Donnacha O’Callaghan was sinbinned for killing ball under the posts.

Leinster’s tactical approach and decision-making were at times curious, never more so than here. As is perhaps the inevitable consequence of their approach this season, at times it as looked as if they’ve played too much rugby and they certainly could have played more field position with the stiff breeze at their backs in the first half. Furthermore, they had opted for a difficult 50-metre shot at goal early on, before eschewing a more kickable penalty when going to the corner – where the Munster locks combined to steal the throw. Then, with O’Callaghan binned, they declined a scrum, instead taking the three points.

Munster were probably relieved to remain 7-6 ahead, though there would be little respite. Leinster, it seemed, would not be denied as Heaslip continued the all-out assault with a trademark steal as the backrowers combined wide out for Richardt Strauss to force a close-range line-out by dragging Jones into touch.

The hooker was stopped inches short from a clever line-out move and Fergus McFadden let a probable try slip through his fingers from Sexton’s superb skip pass. But nobody epitomised Munster’s resilience on the day more than David Wallace, who had also drawn the lines in the sand with the game’s first of many leg-pumping drives, and the way he frog-marched McFadden backwards close to the line in engineering a steal energised home crowd and team-mates alike.

Although Sexton would steer Leinster in front with a superb 40-metre penalty into the wind, akin to a boxer who had punched himself out, Leinster were virtually out on their feet in the final quarter. Tellingly, after falling behind, when O’Driscoll kicked down the middle and led the chase, Howlett beat him on the inside and the pitch opened up. There simply was no chase.

Munster had taken Leinster’s best shots and were more than still standing.

Howlett had given them a 12th-minute lead when the excellent Lifeimi Mafi had switched blind and goose-stepped Eoin Reddan to put the 32-year-old over for his 14th try of a superb season.

Ronan O’Gara, brave beyond a fault as he was targeted defensively, steered a stunning touchline conversion low into the wind. Then, Munster having been kept scoreless for 54 minutes and with Nigel Owens playing advantage, O’Gara crosskicked deliciously for Keith Earls to gather and step inside Isa Nacewa in one movement before rolling over Shane Horgan’s tackle. The coupe de grace would be a penalty try, by which point Strauss was in the backrow.

In the heel of the hunt and in a World Cup year, this was possibly the best result for Irish rugby too.

Scoring sequence: 12 mins Howlett try, O’Gara con 7-0; 29 mins Sexton pen 7-3; (half-time 7-3); 49 mins Sexton pen 7-6; 60 mins Sexton pen 9-7; 66 mins Earls try, O’Gara con 12-9; 79 mins penalty try, O’Gara con 19-9.

MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, K Earls; R O’Gara, C Murray; M Horan, D Varley, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (capt); D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Replacements: W du Preez for Horan (53 mins), M Sherry for Varley (59 mins), D Leamy for O’Callaghan (67 mins), P Warwick for Jones (76 mins). Not used: S Archer, N Ronan, P Stringer, J Murphy.

LEINSTER: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; S O’Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: C Healy for van der Meuwe, K McLaughlin for O’Brien (both 59 mins), A Dundon for Jennings, S Wright for Ross (both 71 mins), P O’Donohoe for Reddan (77 mins). Not used: D Toner, I Madigan, E O’Malley.

Referee : N Owens (WRU).