Munster make telling statement of intent at Thomond Park
Anthony Foley’s side go back to top of Pro 12 table with victory over Leinster
Munster’s Dave O’Callaghan scores his side’s third try in the Guinness Pro12 game against Leinster at Thomond Park. Photograph: Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Munster 28 Leinster 13
Munster made a telling statement of intent to ensure they remained Ireland’s leading side in the end-of-year Pro 12 table when beating Leinster with something to spare last night, thus ensuring the season of goodwill continued for the majority of the sell-out crowd.
The home side played a simple, effective game with huge commitment, setting up targets not too far from the recycle and playing on the gain line – every man in red intent of ruthlessly clearing out rucks no Matter how many men it took out.
Leinster looked up for the fight in the opening half hour or so, pushing up hard off their defensive line initially to avoid a reprise of their Aviva beating in October, but ultimately they couldn’t live with Munster’s sheer intensity and both their tackling and their challenge fell away badly.
Admittedly, the same might have been true for Munster had they lost a fourth game in a row but even without their three totems – Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray – there was never much chance of that.
Both their secondrowers – the excellent Billy Holland (who made two steals) and Donncha O’Callaghan – and their backrowers largely eclipsed their Leinster counterparts, who were not helped by losing Dominic Ryan early on, and despite Munster also losing Robin Copeland themselves by the 27th minute and the highly impressive Tommy O’Donnell after 50 minutes of another all-action display. But whereas Paddy Butler and Dave O’Callaghan provided impact and ballast off the bench – save for their scrum – Leinster’s forward play lacked the same power, while their attacking game – after a bright start – lost its shape, with only Zane Kirchner looking like a threat.
Added to this, Ian Keatley consistently put Munster in the right places, even slanting diagonal low kicks cleverly into the wind to find space in behind Darragh Fanning, whose admittedly harsh sin-binning effectively killed off the game. But if Munster were hungrier for ball on the deck, they also lorded things in the air, where Felix Jones and Andrew Conway immense.
Given the disruptive build-up to the game, and their relatively weakened hands, the contest began with plenty of ebb and flow, so much so that in the 34th minute, for almost the first time on the night, howls of disappointment greeted a knock-on by Duncan Casey. This was not to highlight the Munster hooker, possibly their find of the season; rather that this was the first unforced error of the match.
Leinster had kicked off with a strong wind but Munster were quicker into their stride, taking to the air in good old-fashioned cup-rugby style. Conway, clearly up for this renewal with his native province, set the tone with a leaping take from Duncan Williams’s box kick and when Ian Madigan and Dave Kearney left an up-and-under by Keatley land between them the latter was dragged into touch. Cue a Munster maul being dragged down and Keatley landed the penalty.
Leinster’s response set the tone of the tit-for-tat exchanges with a back move of good quality and a strong carry by Madigan enabled him to restore parity when John Ryan was pinged for not rolling away. Back came Munster, when Dominic Ryan tackled O’Callaghan, the back of his head bounced off Jack Conan’s knee and he departed with concussion.
Nigel Owens had wisely stopped play to ensure Ryan was attended to, and after Copeland broke off the ensuing scrum Munster went through 13 phases – O’Donnell and Casey making strong carries – before the shirtless CJ Stander went inside Luke Fitzgerald from close range to score his 13th try in 47 Munster appearances.
The battle was joined as O’Donnell and Copeland came off the line to put in huge hits on Richardt Strauss and Dave Kearney, before Keatley showed real pace to breach the blue line, but Leinster went through 14 phases of their own before a big scrum was rewarded when Keatley encroached the five metres and Madigan made it 8-6.
Keatley responded with a good carry and resulting three-pointer when Murphy was penalised for not releasing before two more multi-phase attacks ended with penalties for holding on, but the home side were full value for their 11-6 lead into the wind.
The new world boxing champion Andy Lee was introduced at half-time – expressing his hope to perform here one night himself – and the magnitude of the task facing Leinster was hammered home to them went Munster came knocking once more after Keatley fielded a poor kick by Madigan.
The increasingly influential Denis Hurley made the initial inroads when taking Murphy’s tackle to offload to Pat Howard, and when Gordon D’Arcy came shooting out of the line Keatley got his pass away for Conway to take such a good outside-in line that the combination of Shane Jennings, Dave Kearney and Fanning couldn’t stop him scoring. Conway deserved that as much as anyone.
Soon after, Fanning thought Munster ruck ball was out and thus fair ball to play, but Owens thought otherwise and binned him with Keatley also tagging on the penalty. The usual raft of replacements disrupted the flow, but Munster’s scrum grew in strength and Leinster were slipping off more tackles; a prime example being Dave O’Callaghan stepping out of tackles by Isaac Boss and Douglas to romp over the line for Keatley to make it 28-16.
Jack Conan giving Jennings a walk-in try when staying strong in the tackle to offload was scant consolation. By the end, it was almost an anti-climax.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Keatley pen 3-0; 7 mins Madigan pen 3-3; 18 mins Stander try 8-3; 29 mins Madigan pen 8-6; 32 mins Keatley pen 11-6; (half-time 11-6); 45 mins Conway try, Keatley con 18-6; 55 mins Keatley open 21-6; 63 mins O’Callaghan try, Keatley con 28-6; 70 mins Jennings try, Madigan con 28-13.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones (capt); Andrew Conway, Pat Howard, Denis Hurley, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; John Ryan, Duncan Casey, Stephen Archer; Donncha O’Callaghan, Billy Holland; CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Paddy Butler for Copeland (27 mins), Dave O’Callaghan for O’Donnell (51 mins), BJ Botha for Archer, JJ Hanrahan for Hurley (both 59 mins), Kevin O’Byrne for Ryan (64 mins), Eusebio Guinazu for Casey (66 mins), Johne Murphy for Jones (72 mins), Neil Cronin for Williams (77 mins).
LEINSTER: Zane Kirchner; Darragh Fanning, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Ian Madigan, Isaac Boss; Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong; Mike McCarthy, Kane Douglas; Dominic Ryan, Shane Jennings (capt), Jack Conan.
Replacements : Jordi Murphy for Ryan (15 mins), Luke McGrath for Boss, Jimmy Gopperth for Fanning (both 64 mins), Aaron Dundon for Strauss, Tom Denton for McCarthy (both 72 mins). Not used: Maks van Dyk, Jamie Hagan, Colm O’Shea.
Sinbinned: Fanning (54-64 mins)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)