Munster 19 Leinster 34
True to their pre-match vow, Munster gave it a go. They matched Leinster for possession, territory and even intent. A second try at the end wouldn’t have flattered their considerable efforts but a consolation is all that would have been. No matter what Munster try, the class divide remains as clear as ever.
The net effect of this 11th win in the last 13 meetings is to give Leinster the comforting buffer of a 10-point lead atop the table over Ulster and Glasgow.
Meanwhile, Munster are three points further back clinging on to fourth place and a clutch of teams within striking distance of elbowing them out of a home quarter-final, with a must-win derby away to Ulster following their two-legged European clash against Exeter.
The outcome wasn't especially surprising given Leinster recalled seven Irish starters, with three more on the bench, as well as Robbie Henshaw, whereas Munster recalled three players who were replacements against Scotland and were missing their first-choice loosehead, secondrow pairing and back three.
Furthermore, while the winning margin equalled Leinster’s 24-9 semi-final win three seasons ago at the RDS, this was altogether more engaging and competitive than that one-sided affair.
There was also encouragement in the manner the young guns off the bench, perhaps with less mental scars, revived them, beginning with Thomas Ahern chasing down Joey Carbery's restart. It even prompted the game's belated first scrap.
There was also a better shape and more threat in Munster's attack when Ben Healy came on and Carbery switched to fullback, with Craig Casey injecting tempo. This was demonstrated when Damian de Allende, who had a strong game, rewarded a huge effort by the forwards to take Healy's flat pass and power over, with Carbery a decoy out the back, to reduce the lead to 29-19 with 15 minutes remaining.
Healy also injected badly needed line speed into their defence, but Munster's momentum and the crowd's fury – heightened by the excellent Alex Kendellen and Chris Cloete earning a penalty in the jackal – ebbed with a crooked throw by Diarmuid Barron before Leinster sealed the deal and their bonus point through James Lowe's second try.
Johann van Graan was probably correct in maintaining: “I wouldn’t say it’s a psychological blow. From our perspective you’ve got to look at the game the way it is and I felt we weren’t outplayed tonight. We were beaten by the better team. Unfortunately if you concede so many penalties [six breakdown penalties contributed to the 11-9 count in Leinster’s favour], the penalties come from pressure.”
“Look, you’ve got to give that to them. Their kicking game was excellent. I thought their set-piece was good. We felt actually we did very well in the scrum battle, they won their lineout ball, we lost a lineout in a crucial time.
“That’s the game of rugby and they are currently the best team so we’ve got to be better across 80 minutes to beat them. The example of that is getting ahead, 12-11 with one minute to go [to half-time] and we concede a penalty. I think that’s on us. We need to be better,” said Van Graan in reference to another key moment.
Leinster's shunt on a Munster put-in with the home side ahead for the only time in the game and the clock in the red at the end of the first half was significant. The immense Caelan Doris collared Kendellen at the base and a counter-ruck led to Ross Byrne restoring their lead at half-time.
Byrne's masterful performance made light of Johnny Sexton's absence, and to think they were missing Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher and James Ryan as well.
Aside from having better players and better strength in depth, Leinster are also extremely well coached.
Resuming where they left off in the Sportsground with that beautifully choreographed and executed set-piece try finished off by Tommy O'Brien, their opening try here originated from a carbon copy launch play despite five changes in the backline and only Byrne retaining the same shirt number. Again Byrne pulled the trigger with house money to put Garry Ringrose over.
Leinster’s second try, finished by Lowe, within seven minutes of the restart was not dissimilar to their first in its origins and the killer third came from the same playbook, as this time Lowe swept around from left to right for Jimmy O’Brien to finish.
For variety they went up the guts, save for hitting O’Brien on the edge once, before Byrne floated another try-scoring pass to Lowe. The way Byrne punched the air and unleashed a roar showed that perhaps this was also a little personal for him.
Even going after Leinster ruck ball Munster couldn’t slow it down, or else gave away penalties, and aside from having the better attack, Leinster also had the better defence. Exeter will assuredly have taken note of how Leinster outflanked Munster’s defence and Van Graan admitted: “We’ve obviously got to go and review that. I felt they kind of stood us down in the 13 channel and then our wingers needed to make a decision, so fair play to them for those opportunities that they created.
“One team exposes something against you and then you’ve got to fix it otherwise the next team will come and attack you there. We actually conceded a blindside try against the Lions and then against Edinburgh a few weeks ago, but Leinster actually came there and we defended that pretty well but they found some space outside our 13 channel.”
Then again, like many things, Leinster probably do that better than anyone else too.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 10 mins: R Byrne pen 0-3; 13: Carbery pen 3-3; 16: Ringrose try 3-8; 21: Carbery pen 6-8; 26: Byrne pen 6-11; 28: Carbery pen 9-11; 37: Carbery pen 12-11; 40 (+2): Byrne pen 12-14; (half-time 12-14); 48: Lowe try 12-19; 56: Byrne pen 12-22; 58: O'Brien try, Byrne con 12-29; 63: De Allende try, Carbery con 19-29; 74: Lowe try 19-34.
MUNSTER: Matt Gallagher; Calvin Nash, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jason Jenkins, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, Gavin Coombes.
Replacements: Alex Kendellen for Coombes (28 mins), Diarmuid Barron for Scannell, Josh Wycherley for Loughman, John Ryan for Archer, Thomas Ahern for Jenkins (all 56), Craig Casey for Murray, Ben Healy for Gallagher (both 59), Josh Wycherley for Loughman (68), Keith Earls for Nash (72).
LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose (capt), Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Michael Ala'alatoa; Devin Toner, Jack Dunne; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan for Tracy, Cian Healy for E Byrne, Tadhg Furlong for Ala'alatoa (all 46 mins), Josh Murphy for Dunne (49), Ross Molony for Toner (51), Ciarán Frawley for Henshaw (59), Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (65), Max Deegan for Doris (76).
Referee: Christophe Ridley (RFU).