Leinster break new ground and Munster to retain Pro14 title
Defending champions make it four on the spin as rivals are beaten again in Dublin
Luke McGrath celebrates after Jack Conan’s try against Munster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Yet more new ground broken by Leinster, as they secured a fourth successive Pro14 title, albeit this record sixth successive win over their arch rivals also followed a dog-eared script.
Munster huffed and puffed, and stayed in the fight on the scoreboard for as long as possible. But although they were somehow level at the break, akin to last September’s final and the January meeting, such was Leinster’s stranglehold on the game that they again kept them pointless in the second-half.
Leinster had more ballast up front, where Roann Kelleher and Andrew Porter left indelible imprints with their work on both sides of the ball as well as their scrummaging, not least in some of Porter’s deft handling skills.
Their backrow totally eclipsed Munster’s loose forwards. Given licence to shoot out of Leinster’s line, when not carrying superbly or making a nuisance of himself at the breakdown, Josh van der Flier was constantly in the eye of Munster ball carriers.
In truth, Leinster could have been out of sight by the interval. Rory O’Loughlin twice failed to connect with Jordan Larmour, Scott Fardy was held up over the line and van der Flier, in about his only error, crossed in front of the ball before Keith Earls also picked off his pass after Hugo Keenan had initially opened up the defence off the flanker’s hard line and offload.
On each occasion, Leinster looked sure to score and in normal circumstances would have done so.
Leinster’s cleaning out at the breakdown was also sharper and more effective, restricting the influence of Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and, save for one penalty, CJ Stander.
Munster scrambled magnificently, but while Jean Kleyn, Damien de Allende and Chris Farrell had some good moments defensively, Kelleher, Porter, van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw and the increasingly influential Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan et al had the better of the gainline.
Gavin Combes and, when he came on, David Kilcoyne were the only Munster players to generate any go-forward momentum, and Coombes also prevented Fardy from grounding the ball over the line.
Munster did have some nice lineout variations but Leinster had much better starter plays, whether launching Robbie Henshaw up the middle or checking the Munster midfield and creating space for Hugo Keenan to hit the line in the outside channels.
If the truth be told, in what was effectively a first outing for both sides since they met each other in January, Leinster simply looked a better coached side
In phase play Leinster also played with more ambition and variety, in their straighter lines of running, support lines and offloads, and as much as anything had more animation and decoy runners off the ball.
Leinster’s defence was also stronger, but then again it often looked easier for them to read the intended carriers. Munster’s skills and ball retention were inferior too, as reflected in more unforced errors on the ball.
Granted, it was only Joey Carbery’s second start in over a year, and his former teammates targeted his channel mercilessly, while their back pay was crying out for the inventive sleight of hand, offloading, footwork and short kicking game that Simon Zebo used to provide.
Johann van Graan again reminded us that whereas everyone else concedes four tries or more to Leinster, his team at least were restricting them to one. But that will cut little ice with the province’s fans or indeed players, for in its own way this was probably the most demoralising of any of the nine defeats in 10 meetings with Leinster under van Graan’s watch.
For the more disheartening fact is that despite a locked and fully loaded, all-international, first-choice backline coached by Stephen Larkham, Munster hardly fired an attacking shot.
Just past the hour, after that rarity - a turnover on Ruddock forced by Kleyn and Stander -led to Murray opting for a steepling Garryowen from 45 metres out deep into the Leinster 22. One could almost hear the groans from living-rooms in Limerick, Cork and elsewhere in the province. It was slightly overcooked but given how little inroads Munster’s running game was making, it was worth the punt and earned a lineout outside the 22 anyway.
If the truth be told, in what was effectively a first outing for both sides since they met each other in January, Leinster simply looked a better coached side.
As forewarned by Johann van Graan, and as happened in Leinster’s recent win away to Ulster, the game pivoted on a scrum on halfway when Cian Healy muscled inside John Ryan to twist him inwards and the Leinster pack shifted the power onto Munster’s loosehead side.
There was an inevitability about the trademark pummelling of the Munster fringe defence until Jack Conan was finally awarded his try after powering over the line for a third time.
Even more certain was that Munster wouldn’t have the power, wit or width to claw back the deficit. Eventually, a miscued box kick by Murray led to Ross Byrne, after his first miss of the competition, landing his 24th kick out of 25 to finally put the outcome beyond mathematical as well as theoretical doubt.
For Munster, this was another tortuous slow death.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins Byrne pen 3-0; 12 mins Byrne pen 6-0; 14 mins Carbery pen 6-3; 40 (+ 1 min) Carbery pen 6-6; (half-time 6-6); 48 mins Conan try, Byrne con 13-6; 69 mins Byrne pen 16-6.
Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: Ed Byrne for Healy, Tadhg Furlong for Porter (both 53 mins), Ryan Baird for Fardy, Johnny Sexton for Byrne (both 59 mins), Byrne for (62 mins), James Tracy for Kelleher (70 mins), Ross Molony for Ruddock (74 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park for McGrath (76 mins). Not used - James Lowe.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Peter O’Mahony (CAPT), CJ Stander. Replacements: Jack O’Donoghue for O’Mahony (49 mins), Dave Kilcoyne for Cronin, Stephen Archer for Ryan (both 52 mins), Kevin O’Byrne for N Scannell (53 mins), Billy Holland for Kleyn, Craig Casey for Murray, JJ Hanrahan for Carbery (all 70 mins), Rory Scannell for de Allende (74 mins).
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).