Blue is the colour as Leinster end Reds' reign
Munster 6 Leinster 25:A blue-clad team came of age at Croke Park today producing a magnificent performance to dethrone the defending Heineken Cup champions. Two tribes went to war, literally on one or two occasions, to produce a stunning contest, one of savage intensity, liberally sprinkled with moments of sumptuous rugby by both sides.
Munster might have had to bow the knee on the day but they didn’t relinquish their title without their customary, wholehearted commitment. They came agonisingly close to manufacturing definitive breaches of the Leinster defence, particular though the twinkle-toed feet of Keith Earls and Lifeimi Mafi but a Leinster hand inevitably managed to affect the tackle.
The champions gave everything but on the day, under ferocious pressure, their normal unflappability disintegrated at times as errors peppered their ambition; some out of desperation, others simply the legacy of suffocating pressure.
Leinster’s victory was underpinned by their unrelenting physicality of their defence, on several occasions with metres of their own line. Munster launched themselves at a thin blue line that assumed the properties of a brick wall. They scored three tries to none, two beautifully crafted, the third coming from Brian O’Driscoll’s footballing nous and lung power.
Even the most ardent Munster supporter could not begrudge Leinster their victory nor counter the assertion that Michael Cheika’s side were the better team on the day. The victors even managed to absorb the loss of their talismanic outhalf Felipe Contepomi to a knee injury on 25 minutes.
The Argentine might have missed a long range penalty but up until that point he had been superb, dropping a goal, bouncing tacklers, chipping astutely and snaffling ball out of Munster player’s hands on a few occasions.
It says so much therefore that Leinster didn’t blink when Jonathan Sexton was introduced and also just how well the 23-year-old acquitted himself. He just slotted into his role and kept his side going forward either through the boot of bringing into play those outside him.
Leinster performed to a man, the pack outstanding, the backline conjuring images of time gone by with beautifully crafted and executed tries. Cheika’s decision to play Isa Nacewa at fullback was vindicated, the Fijian producing a superb performance.
Shane Horgan was wonderfully abrasive, the centre partnership of O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy had to endure one or two anxious moments defensively but in possession provided that instinctive cutting edge. Luke Fitzgerald took his try superbly and covered athletically while Chris Whitaker’s service from scrumhalf – his work rate and covering no less magnificent – was sublime.
The pack outplayed the opposing eight in all bar the lineout, every single player contributing handsomely. Their counter-rucking and ability to force turnovers was crucial. They all stepped up to make big plays, inspired by captain Leo Cullen, who enjoyed a towering game: in truth though it was hard to differentiate in terms of quality between the Leinster eight.
Only Paul O’Connell and to a lesser extent Jerry Flannery and David Wallace came close to matching them in the Munster pack. Leinster though won most on the individual battles on the ground, in the scrum and in the contact areas.
Mafi, Earls and Doug Howlett were always a threat initiating several line breaks but the final pass was often ill-judged. Ronan O’Gara will be disappointed as he never broached his own high standards; place-kicking aside.
Leinster played some brilliant counter-attacking rugby and went over for their three tries on 30 minutes. After working the ball into midfield, two players ran decoy lines and O’Driscoll popped the ball to Nacewa. He chose a great line, raced into the Munster 22 and cleverly ran towards Gordon D’Arcy before releasing the centre. The latter showed a good turn of foot to hold over Earls despairing tackle and bounce his way over the line.
Sexton could not convert from the touchline but Leinster had struck the first psychological blow to lead 11-3. Up until then the game had been helter-skelter, lurching from one 22 to the other.
Earls had made one glorious 50-metre break before Nacewa hauled him down, the young centre just running out of support. In the next instant Rocky Elsom – he should have been named man-of-the-match despite a long list in blue jerseys – produced a stunning tackle in Ian Dowling with metres of the Leinster line.
In the interim there was time for a dust-up that led to a bit of grappling and several niggly skirmishes as international team-mates put aside friendships for 80 minutes.
Munster’s points came from the boot of O’Gara after Cian Healy was penalised for taking out Dowling; the Leinster prop getting a yellow card for good measure.
Aside from Contepomi’s early drop goal Leinster’s other first half points came from a Sexton penalty, an achievement made all the more laudable as it was the first time he touched the ball after coming on as a replacement.
Leinster’s indiscipline cost them another three points just before the interval, Elsom penalised for grabbing Howlett’s jersey as he chased a kick; O’Gara once again obliged. Leinster’s first half performance probably warranted a little more than their 11-6 half-time advantage.
The second half seemed to be taking on the pattern of the first when Bernard Jackman saw Munster pilfer a fifth lineout within 90 seconds but with a couple of minutes, Leinster had their second try.
O’Driscoll careered back infield to keep a move from petering out, two rucks later Leinster swept back from whence they came and O’Driscoll and Horgan’s quick hands put Fitzgerald clear inside the Munster 22.
The left wing stepped inside Paul Warwick’s despairing tackle to score a superb try. Sexton’s posted the difficult conversion and at 18-6 Munster’s reign as European champions was seriously under threat.
Leinster’s facility to concede penalties (four in the space of six minutes) was offset by O’Gara’s lapses, a knock-on here, a ball kicked out on the full there.
Munster rallied for one big push, earning a lineout eight metres from their opponents’ line. What followed was bone on bone collisions for millimetres of turf as Leinster defended with savage intensity and time and again Munster ploughed forward through their pack.
O’Connell, Flannery, Wallace could not break the line. Even when the ball was moved further out Leinster scrambled effectively. Healy forced a turnover, the excellent Whitaker spoiled Wallace at the base of the scrum as Leinster continued to defy Munster; the latter’s frustration manifest in Alan Quinlan’s ill judged hand into Cullen’s face as the latter tackled O’Connell.
The reward for Leinster vigilance came on 62 minutes when O’Driscoll read O’Gara’s pass inside the Leinster 22: O’Connell, the intended recipient could only watch in horror as the Irish captain intercepted, juggled, recaptured the ball and set off on a 75 metre journey to the Munster posts.
Sexton’s conversion all but assured it was going to be Leinster’s day. Munster continued to try to force the game, running from everywhere but under pressure, handling errors, coupled with Leinster’s unblinking focus scuppered their ambition.
Leinster supporters savoured the closing throes of the contest in song and in waving their flags, the memories of 2006 exorcised by the class of 2009. Edinburgh awaits.
Scoring sequence - 15 mins:Contepomi drop goal, 0-3; 17:O’Gara penalty, 3-3; 26:Sexton penalty, 3-6; 31:D’Arcy try, 3-11; 37:O’Gara penalty, 6-11. Half-time:6-11. 43:Fitzgerald try, Sexton conversion, 6-18; 62:O’Driscoll try, Sexton conversion, 6-25.
MUNSTER:P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (capt); A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy. Replacements:B Murphy for Warwick 65 mins; N Ronan for Leamy 65 mins; T Buckley for Hayes 67 mins; D Fogarty for Flannery 71 mins; M O’Driscoll for O’Callaghan 73 mins; M Prendergast for Stringer 73 mins; D Hurley for Earls 77 mins.
LEINSTER:I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; F Contepomi, C Whitaker; C Healy, B Jackman, S Wright; L Cullen (capt), M O’Kelly; R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: R McCormack for Jennings 18-27; J Sexton for Contepomi 25 mins; G Dempsey for O’Driscoll 37-38 mins; Dempsey for Fitzgerald 58 mins; J Fogarty for Jackman 60 mins; S O’Brien for Jennings 73 mins; D Toner for Cullen.
Referee:N Owens (Wales).
Yellow card:Cian Healy (Leinster) 17 mins.