Johnny Sexton guides Leinster to another home success over Munster
Late try from Keith Earls earns important bonus point for visitors at Aviva Stadium
Leinster fullback Joey Carbery claims the high ball during the Guinness Pro 14 game against Munster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster 23 Munster 17
At the end, it was another one-score finale to a Leinster-Munster showdown, yet instead of hammering at the Leinster line, Munster were seeking to score from their own line, and little about the previous 79 minutes or so suggested that remotely possible.
Leinster were never headed, and led most of the way. Until a late Munster flurry, they also looked the stronger all-round team for much of the afternoon, and without yet scaling the heights of last season, this completed their ninth win of their last 10 at home to Munster, as well as their fifth in six Guinness Pro14 games this season.
But an altogether sterner test awaits in their Champions Cup opener against Montpelier at lunchtime next Saturday at the RDS.
Tadhg Furlong, Scott Fardy and Rhys Ruddock caught the eye, as did two-try scorer Rory O’Loughlin, while Johnny Sexton looks in good fettle, and along with another man of the match gong, he became Leinster’s all-time leading points scorer, overtaking Felipe Contepomi.
Yet, for all their attacking platform, a return of two tries will disappoint them, although credit should also be reserved for the Munster defence. Living off scraps and their defence, there was more ambition from Munster than at the end of last season, with more offloads and some strike moves.
After Ben Whitehouse only refereed Munster in the first 55 minutes, at which point the penalty count was 11-1, he only had eyes for Leinster in the least 25 minutes, and the count finished 11-8. Even so, as all three Munster outhalves had a run at first receiver, JJ Hanrahan looked the best.
The delayed returns of the Lions and other centrally contracted players is primarily with the November internationals in mind, and there were encouraging signs for the attending Joe Schmidt and co as all seemed to come through unscathed.
Robbie Henshaw looked strong on his seasonal re-appearance, and showed some deft touches, while after tearing it up during the summer, Keith Earls looked razor sharp on his seasonal bow, scoring with two classical winger’s finishes to boot. Admittedly, Leinster did have some joy from targeting him in the air and in this respect Adam Byrne had his measure, albeit he conceded two tries on his wing.
Given there were a reputed 47,000-plus tickets sold before kick-off, the number of empty seats was mystifying. It scarcely looked as if there were 30,000 actually in attendance. But this was in large part due to the uncivilised, TV dictated 2pm kick-off, coupled with the very same live television. Certainly the Red Army was more a Red Battalion, although many of the spaces were filled up after kick-off, whatever about the 46,374 sales reflecting the actual audience.
For much of the first half, the home crowd had more to cheer about as well, as Munster were forced into defensive mode for large tracts of the opening period, the primary cause for which was a 7-1 penalty count against them.
Their defence was excellent, maintaining line speed and numbers across the line, which made Leinster have to work hard for any inroads. It also effectively earned Munster their try, although that said Leinster did manufacture two of their own.
It was evident that Munster were targeting Leinster out wide by putting width on the ball quickly, even from strike moves. A lovely tip-on pass by Peter O’Mahony gave Andrew Conway an early run outside Barry Daly.
For their part, Leinster clearly targeted Earls against the taller Byrne in the air with two testing early bombs by Sexton, and this ploy yielded a richer harvest as the half wore on. Indeed after Keatley missed touch with Munster’s sole penalty of the half and Joey Carbery took to the air, Byrne completed a brilliant high, leaping take by the touchline.
When Munster went wide off another strike move, Chris Farrell’s skip pass to Earls was blatantly forward yet the officials conspired to wave play on. Even after Earls beat Carbery and nonchalantly dummied Daly for a fine finish, referee Whitehouse turned down Sexton’s entreaties to check the pass with the TMO. The TMO, Ben Mason, thankfully had a word in the referee’s ear and the try was correctly over-ruled.
Instead, Leinster’s greater possession and pressure told when they went through the phases off a lineout maul. Rhys Ruddock took a lovely late line onto Luke McGrath’s short pass to give the attack some impetus, before O’Loughlin spun out of John Ryan’s tackle, and then rolled with the tackles of both CJ Stander and Robin Copeland to finish well under the posts.
Munster’s defence continued to keep them in the game, even when Niall Scannell was rightly binned for a one-handed knockdown to prevent Henshaw’s pass reaching Furlong.
Earls might have sprinted virtually the length of the pitch when their defensive line speed forced another spillage but for Carbery snaffling him by the ankles, although it would have been interesting to see Daly trying to chase the Munster speedster down.
In any event this threat was realised when good defensive line speed by Keatley and O’Mahony forced another spillage when Henshaw failed to gather Sexton’s pass and Keatley snaffled the ball before James Tracey to score untouched from 40 metres and convert his own try. They actually won the 10 minutes with 14 men by 7-0.
With the teams level numerically again as well as on the scoreboard, Leinster were rebuffed on the gainline through eight phases before Sexton went to Byrne in the air. He reclaimed the ball brilliantly, and this pattern was reprised as Leinster again went through the phases before Byrne tapped down another crossfield kick by Sexton which O’Loughlin claimed on the ground.
This time, after another few phases, Sexton reprised his Lions loop with Furlong, who amongst his many attributes has wonderful handling skills for a prop, to put Carbery through the hole of an over-worked defence and he transferred for O’Loughlin to round the posts with Daly to spare. Good running lines off the ball by Fardy and Tracey helped to check defenders and create the space.
The 14-7 interval lead scarcely reflected Leinster’s supremacy, and as telling as their 62 per cent possession and 68 per cent territory was that CJ Stander had only three carries in the entire first half.
The trend of the 7-1 penalty count of the first half continued apace on the resumption as a high tackle by Farrell on Carbery enabled Sexton to make it 17-7, and thereby overtake Contepomi, only for Munster to strike off turnover ball again. This time Tommy O’Donnell latched onto a loose Leinster tap down at a lineout and a gaping hole to charge upfield.
He also used brilliant footwork and timed his pass perfectly as Earls didn’t even have to break stride, and thus despite Byrne’s valiant covering tackle, Earls scored by the corner flag.
Another scrum penalty enabled Sexton to make it 20-12 and when Josh van der Flier assumed the jackal position and no-one was on hand for the clear-out after Scannell was tackled – which rather summed up Munster’s inability to build through the phases – Sexton made it 23-12.
At this stage the penalty count was a scarcely believable 11-1, whereupon, akin to Dublin buses, three Munster penalties came along in quick succession. Thrice they went to the corner, but at the third attempt their maul was held up short of the line for a turnover scrum, which prompted a cheer almost as big as those which greeted the Leinster tries.
Their supporters knew its importance, for that was their last shot at winning the game.
That said, the rush of penalties for Munster continued apace. A clever blindside move after going to the corner gave them the width of the pitch to pay with, and Farrell’s pass out the back and Hanrahan’s really flat pass allowed Conway to give Earls another good finish which at least earned Munster a bonus point.
Scoring sequence – 17 mins O’Loughlin try, Sexton con 7-0; 27 mins Keatley try and con 7-7; 35 mins O’Loughlin try, Sexotn con 14-7; (half-time 14-7); 44 mins Sexton pen 17-7, 48 mins Earls try 17-12; 52 mins Sexton pen 20-12; 55 mins Sexotn pen 23-12; 79 mins Earls try 23-17.
LEINSTER: Joey Carbery; Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, Barry Daly; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Seán Cronin for Tracy, Cian Healy for J McGrath, Michael Bent for Furlong (49 mins), Jordi Murphy for Ruddock, Jamison Gibson-Park for L McGrath (both 62 mins), Ross Molony for Fardy (69 mins), Ruddock for van der Flier, Fergus McFadden for Daly (both 73 mins), Ross Byrne for Sexton (76 mins).
MUNSTER: JJ Hanrahan; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Tyler Bleyendaal, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Robin Copeland, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall for O’Donnell (29-31 mins) and for N Scannell (67 mins), Stephen Archer for Ryan (43 mins), Alex Wootton for Keatley (45 mins), Jack O’Donoghue O’Donnell (64 mins), Rory Scannell for Bleyendaal (65 mins),Liam O’Connor for Kilcoyne (67 mins), Mark Flanagan for Copeland (69 mins), Duncan Williams for Murray (73 mins). Sinbinned: N Scannell (21-31 mins).
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (WRU)