Munster set to take the long road in search of silverware

Johann van Graan’s side will not return to Thomond Park this season

Munster players and management looked relatively relieved to have emerged with zero match points rather than one, thus sending them to the Kingspan Stadium in the URC quarter-finals a fortnight hence rather than a return to the high veld and a date with the Bulls, where they were beaten 29-24 10 weeks ago.

Yet repeating their victory in Belfast four weeks ago is liable to be a tougher assignment given Ulster were nursing a post-Toulouse hangover, and even then Munster would quite likely face a third trek to South Africa this season against the Bulls in Cape Town in the semi-finals.

If Munster somehow navigate their way to the final, where Leinster may well lie in wait in Dublin again, it will certainly have been a more exacting route than the potential for a Thomond Park quarter-final and semi-final which would have come with a bonus point win here.

Failing that, two match points through either a draw or a couple of bonus points would have earned a Thomond Park quarter-final against the Bulls, and that looked eminently feasibly when Conor Murray’s alert finish from Mike Haley’s kick and chase left them 19-15 ahead and with 38 minutes to score a fourth try.

Johann van Graan confirmed afterwards that he and captain Jack O'Donoghue had talked through all eventualities, and the management had the half-time interval to reaffirm this.

This made the decisions to take three points with penalties in the 49th and 60th minutes a little puzzling. Otherwise, to their credit, their performance had plenty of ambition throughout and they strained every sinew for that fourth try.

One superb passage of carrying and offloading by Chris Farrell, Murray, Mike Haley, Thomas Ahern, O'Donoghue and Alex Kendellen would have led to one of the tries of the season with Keith Earls's finish but for O'Donoghue's offload being forward.

Inside the last 10 minutes of a richly entertaining advert for Irish rugby, they countered from inside their 10-metre line through O'Donoghue and Joey Carbery, through 24 phases and 50 metres upfield. They'd looked to emulate Leinster from the outset, and reached the edges six times, interrupted only by Murray using a penalty to quick tap for a 10-metre gain.

Alas for them, Carbery pulled the trigger with a skip pass for Jack Daly, who was pummelled into touch by Jamie Osborne. They had one more go, but once again Leinster kept their defensive shape and desire before O'Donoghue fumbled Ben Healy's pass to the edge.

Admittedly, there won't be any need to have the Thomond Park pitch relaid, and they will avoid Leinster until the final. But even so it means no Thomond Park farewell for the departing coaches, Van Graan, Stephen Larkham and JP Ferreira, and players such as Damian de Allende, John Ryan and Chris Cloete. Instead, it transpires that their last game at Thomond Park was a 64-3 win over the Dragons in early March.

“Yeah, that is disappointing,” admitted Van Graan. “It’s a place that we love to play at and it’s a place where we’ve been very good at this season and yes, it is disappointing not to go back there.”

Van Graan hopes to have Peter O'Mahony, Simon Zebo and De Allende back for the quarter-final, as well as Stephen Archer and Craig Casey back from illness, and quite likely Gavin Coombes, Jack O'Sullivan and Cloete; a casualty list which shows they were far from full-strength themselves.

Leinster again underlined their superior depth chart, to anyone really, with a 12th win in the last 14 meetings. Jordan Larmour’s footwork and pace made everyone else look like they were jogging on the spot, so much so that there were audible groans among the vast majority of Leinster fans in the 32,000-plus crowd when he opted to twice kick.

The departing Rory O'Loughlin, with a sharp finish, Peter Dooley, Josh Murphy, Adam Byrne and David Hawkshaw and the retiring Seán Cronin and Devin Toner, who plucked two balls out of the skies to thrill his fan club, had fond Aviva farewells.

Ryan Baird gave a reminder of his athleticism and Joe McCarthy a portent of big things to come, the Harry Byrne-Ciarán Frawley axis again started a treat before the latter suffered a cut chin, and Cormac Foley's eye-catching full home debut featured the try of the match and a pivotal 50:22, but also a shoulder injury.

And then there was the debut of quick-passing Ben Murphy, son of current Irish Under-20 coach Richie, who was a mascot at the RDS against Edinburgh in 2007, so becoming Leinster's 60th player of the season. They're a machine all right.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 2 mins: Penny try 5-0; 9: Byrne pen 8-0; 12: O'Donoghue try 8-5; 17: Haley try, Carbery con 8-12; 23: Foley try, Byrne con 15-12; (half-time 15-12); 41: Murray try, Carbery con 15-19; 46: Byrne pen 18-19; 49: mins Carbery pen 18-22; 51: penalty try 25-22; 54: O'Loughlin try, Byrne con 32-22; 61: Carbery pen 32-25; 71: Byrne pen 35-25.

LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Rob Russell, Jamie Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Rory O'Loughlin; Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley; Ed Byrne (capt), Seán Cronin, Thomas Clarkson; Joe McCarthy, Josh Murphy; Ryan Baird, Scott Penny, Max Deegan.

Replacements: Adam Byrne for Frawley (27 mins), John McKee for Cronin, Peter Dooley for Byrne, Cian Healy for Clarkson (all 49), Devin Toner for J Murphy (55), Ben Murphy for Foley (58), Alex Soroka for McCarthy (66), David Hawkshaw for H Byrne (76).

Sinbinned: Russell (37-47 mins).

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Thomas Ahern; Fineen Wycherley, Alex Kendellen, Jack O'Donoghue (capt).

Replacements: Jason Jenkins for Kleyn (49 mins), Keynan Knox for Ryan (54), Jeremy Loughman for J Wycherley, Rory Scannell for Goggin (both 55), Diarmuid Barron for Kendellen (58-61), for Scannell (61), Jack Daly for Ahern, Ben Healy for Carbery (both 64), N Scannell for Kendellen (65), Ahern for Daly, Patrick Patterson for Murray (both 76).

Sinbinned: N Scannell (51-61 mins).

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).

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