Johnny Sexton: We must learn from manner of Munster defeat
Visitors' ill-discipline proves the crucial factor as eager Munster record a much-needed victory
A fired-up Joey Carbery of Munster remonstrates with Leinster’s Johnny Sexton during the Pro14 clash at Thomond Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Munster 26 Leinster 17
Anyone watching in from the outside, especially opening Six Nations opponents England, must have chuckled at the sight of so many of Ireland’s leading men ending this year to end all years by going at each other so spitefully.
That’s rugby, of course, or at any rate it used to be. This was old school and no doubt the bad blood will be put aside while, in the heel of the hunt, this may have been the best outcome from a tempestuous match high on drama if short on its customary quality.
Munster desperately needed to avoid a third defeat in a row, to stay above Connacht in Conference B before Friday’s eagerly-awaited rendezvous in Galway, and perhaps most of all to avoid an ignominious, record-equalling fifth defeat in a row to their arch rivals in front of a festive home full house – and all the more so after James Lowe’s 32nd minute red card.
For this game was entirely coloured by Leinster’s over-zealous approach, most notably in their tackle technique. Having conceded one yellow card all season, here they incurred a red, two yellows and a 10-4 penalty count, and all by the end of an extraordinary 56-minute first half.
As a fine scrumhalf in his own playing days with his native Munster and Connacht, Frank Murphy was pitched into the 21st and by some distance most difficult Guinness Pro14 match of his fledgling refereeing career. He handled it well.
With little or no help from his assistants or the TMO, Murphy was the most composed participant in the match – and how he needed to be. His deliberations were necessary and his communication skills were excellent.
It says everything about the big decisions that seemingly all pundits disagreed on each of them. But he had no option other than to dismiss Lowe, even if he ran into Andrew Conway accidentally, given the duty of care to the airborne players and the outcome which saw the Munster winger somersault and land on his head.
Yes, possibly, Scott Fardy and Conor Murray might have seen yellow too for high tackles, but Cian Healy’s on Murray, for which he apologised, was worse. Murphy deemed that Tadhg Furlong did not intentionally catch Chris Cloete high when the unfortunate Munster flanker was pulled up by James Tracy.
On that premise, yellow was correct, although Johann van Graan probably had this incident in mind when commenting: “one or two of the earlier decisions could have gone maybe higher”.
Munster were certainly the more technically correct in the tackle/collisions, although van Graan’s assertion that his team’s discipline was “excellent” is relative.
Certainly Johnny Sexton had a point when suggesting to Murphy that if he was to be consistent then the penalty again Healy should have been reversed when Keith Earls sought retribution on Scott Fardy. Then again, Earls was by no means alone when looking for some “afters”.
Sexton had been aggrieved by a penalty against him early on when he took exception to Fineen Wycherley roughing him up after a borderline late tackle by tugging off the flanker’s head gear and throwing it in his face.
Sending a strong side down to Thomond Park – it was Sexton’s first game here in six and a half years – may actually prove even more valuable in defeat, and the captain admitted Leinster will learn plenty from the manner of their loss.
“It’s just about having that clear thought process in a red-hot environment here. It’s a very special place to play and you can either rise to the challenge or you can walk out the gate.
“Some teams come here and get beaten no ends up but we didn’t do that. I’m proud of the lads for how we stuck in there but you can’t blame any one person for the cards because no one went out to high-tackle someone or no one went out take someone out in the air. It’s just us needing to be better in this environment where you don’t do those things.
“We’ll learn a lot,” Sexton repeated. “We’re going to encounter an environment like this again at some stage of the season. We could be back here at some stage, you never know.
“Our actions just kept stacking up, one on top of another. We just have to figure out why, whether we were too revved up for the fixture.”
As in the Stade Ernest Wallon, the Rec and now here, Leinster are learning that they are the hunted ones, and Sexton will have to learn that not only as the Leinster captain, but Ireland’s totem, the World Player of the Year and all that, it’s grist to the mill for home team and especially fans alike if he is seen to lose his cool.
The pity was that Sexton was removed on the hour mark in a pre-ordained strategy, even though they were still in touch at 16-10 through their defence and lineout maul – albeit it then malfunctioned twice. It was a pity too that he was followed by the phenomenal James Ryan (another 17 carries for 27 metres) and Garry Ringrose.
Ultimately, Munster did better against 15 men in the opening 17 minutes (7-0) as well as 13 men (6-0 when conservatively electing for shots at goal) whereas Leinster did best when reduced to 14 men for 52 minutes (14 points to 13).
Out of keeping with the mayhem and the madness, Munster conjured the move of the match off a lineout maul on halfway when Rory Scannell pulled the ball back, skipping Joey Carbery, for Earls to beat the onrushing Ringrose. Only they know if it was meant, but Earls swept upfield and though he didn’t link with Mike Haley to his outside, the seven-pointer eventually came through a 12-man maul.
A fired-up Carbery, 14 tackles along with a couple of run-ins and verbal exchanges in his first match against Sexton, landed the touchline conversion for the first of five kicks from five in a redemptory response to the Castres defeat. That was important, and Thomond Park rose in salute to him.
Scoring sequence: 14 mins Cloete try, Carbery con 7-0; 24 Sexton pen 7-3; 35 Carbery pen 10-3; 39 Carbery pen 13-3; (half-time 13-3); 44 Carbery pen 16-3; 48 Tracy try, Sexton con 16-10; 65 Carbery pen; 72 Earls try, Bleyendaal con 26-17; 82 Deegan try, Frawley con 26-17.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Fineen Wycherley, Chris Cloete, CJ Stander (capt).
Replacements: Arno Botha for Cloete (29 mins), Stephen Archer for Ryan (59 mins), Billy Holland for Kleyn, Darren Sweetnam for Goggin (both 65 mins), Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne, Tyler Bleyendaal for Carbery (71 mins), Kevin O’Byrne for N Scannell, Alby Mathewson for Murray (both 76 mins).
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Rory O’Loughlin, Garry Ringrose, Noel Reid, James Lowe; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong, Scott Fardy, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Michael Bent for Ruddock (36-39 mins) and for Furlong, Bryan Byrne for Tracy, Peter Dooley for Healy, Ciaran Frawley for Sexton (all 60 mins), Max Deegan for Ruddock -(66 mins), Conor O’Brien for Ringrose (69 mins), Ross Molony for Ryan, Hugh O’Sullivan for McGrath (both 74 mins).
Sinbinned: Healy (17-27 mins), Furlong (29-39 mins).
Sent-off: Lowe (32 mins).
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)