Leinster exploit Munster’s lack of variety to book final date with Glasgow
Defending champions bounce back from European defeat to make it to Celtic Park
Leinster 24 Munster 9
Leinster still have one hand on one of their trophies. Munster brought their kitchen sink to a typically full-on derby but the champions’ defence held them in a vice-like grip and though a little flat at the outset, upped their game at two key junctures to ultimately pull clear.
Munster, as is their wont, brought plenty of energy and intensity, and earned more possession and territory. But even with Conor Murray’s sharp passing, Joey Carbery and Keith Earls providing some invention and Chris Farrell’s excellent lines of running, Munster’s running game lacked footwork and variety.
Too often they ran straight into contact, with little in the way of tip-on passes, offloads or varying the point of contact. Earls generally had to come well off his wing to get involved, whereas Andrew Conway was largely underused. The deeper their hole became, the more they went route one.
It also told us much about the difference in the two sides’ attacks that Leinster made 10 line breaks to one by Munster.
Initially, Leinster looked to be carrying something of a hangover, or more likely a sense of let-down, after losing last week’s Heineken Champions Cup final. Their passing and catching accuracy was again not to their own high standards, although this was also in the context of both sides targeting the ball in the tackle with some success.
Ironically in light of how Saracens responded to Maro Itoje’s yellow card which awoke them, similarly it was James Lowe’s sin-binning which brought energy to Leinster’s performance. Realising they had to up their intensity in defence, they duly did so, and emerged from that 10 minutes level.
Then, when Niall Scannell was binned, and again as if turning a switch, Leinster upped the tempo and width of their attacking game to maximise their advantage. Tellingly, it was their frontrow trio of Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Seán Cronin who combined for the inevitable breakthrough try. Munster just didn’t possess that combined skill-set.
Jack Conan (16 carries for 44 metres as against CJ Stander’s 16 for 14 metres) had a huge game, as the Leinster backrow eclipsed the bulky Munster trio, with Rhys Ruddock and Josh van der Flier making 17 and 16 tackles. Ditto James Ryan, needless to say.
Judging by the colours, needless to say there was hardly a neutral among the near 20,000 capacity, with between a fifth and a quarter in red. Thankfully too, the forecast heavy showers never materialised.
Leinster were quick into their stride when Jordan Larmour countered off Murray’s low clearance to half-way from the kick-off, going through their phases. Mike Haley made a try-saving tackle on James Lowe when Leinster went to the edge with an advantage for Murray’s high tackle on Van der Flier. Ross Byrne opened the scoring without a Munster player having touched the ball bar Murray’s kick.
However Haley reclaimed Carbery’s short restart, and the latter duly drew the sides level when Leinster were pinged for not rolling away.
Lowe, true to type, was involved in a shoving match after the whistle, as were Ryan and Jean Kleyn after an overthrow by Cronin, which cranked up the atmosphere.
Munster won the scrum penalty, Carbery went up the line and Niall Scannell’s perfect throw hit Peter O’Mahony under pressure for Farrell to take an out-and-in line onto Murray’s pass, before Stander bumped Ruddock, so prompting an exhausting, unbroken five-minute passage of play.
Three times Munster went through the phases, a fine steal by Robbie Henshaw and an intercept by Conan ending the first two, and the lengthy stoppage which followed was welcomed by all. Only Kleyn’s alertness and tackle by the corner flag prevented Van der Flier from scoring off a blindside lineout move.
Garry Ringrose atoned for being stepped by Rory Scannell when rushing up, but immediately did so again for a man-and-ball welcome back to the RDS for Carbery. Although the home crowd were annoyed by referee Mike Adamson decreeing Ringrose had knocked on in the tackle, it looked a fair call.
It had significant implications too. Munster finally pierced the blue line when Murray’s double skip pass picked out Tadhg Beirne, always a willing carrier, to find a clear gap for the break. He offloaded to John Ryan and he to Stander, whose pass on to Carbery was knocked down one-handed by Lowe, who’d already conceded a scrum moments before. He who lives by the sword and all that. Lowe was sin-binned and Carbery kicked Munster ahead.
One amateurish aspect to the occasion was the lack of a match clock anywhere inside the ground for the first half, for the benefit of either the crowd or the players.
Munster duly won another scrum penalty but turned over the lineout when Ryan prompted some ping ball off Niall Scannell’s poor throw, though it looked like a knock-on. Leinster still had to up their intensity and line speed in defence, which they did, and Van der Flier in the jackal won a relieving penalty after Kleyn’s carry off Murray’s pass.
That said, a misplaced pass by Byrne, following earlier ones by Ringrose and Larmour, summed up the home side’s less than complete accuracy on the ball. Still, this error was with a penalty advantage against Beirne for offside, and Byrne’s penalty just before Lowe returned meant they had drawn the 10 minutes 3-3 without their winger.
Possession was not being protected particularly well by either side, albeit Ruddock did well to rip the ball from Beirne in the tackle, before Devin Toner twisted awkwardly in a tackle by Kilcoyne, who immediately showed his concern. Toner could at least put some pressure on his injured left knee, but still needed helped from two Leinster medics, as he was replaced by Scott Fardy.
Leinster put together another strong defensive set through nine phases, which ended with Healy in the jackal over Haley. Undeterred by events a week against Saracens, again Leinster opted to keep playing beyond the 40. Byrne went up the line and the home side went through the phases, Larmour making inroads with one of his jigs, featuring one fiendish step which left Rory Scannell tackling fresh air, before his brother Niall went off his feet. The clock having passed 46 minutes, Byrne nudged them 9-6 in front at half-time.
It was intense, tight and taut, with defences on top, ne’er a glimmer of a try, and a mite too many handling mistakes, but it was no less absorbing for all of that. Munster had enjoyed more possession and territory, but had again looked blunt.
On the resumption three match clocks suddenly turned on and Cronin made early inroads when straightening onto a switch pass from Luke McGrath to break Niall Scannell’s tackle. When the latter retreated into the line of McGrath’s pass, he was binned and Byrne extended Leinster’s lead to 12-6.
Munster needed something. Anything. And O’Mahony provided it with a lineout steal, and in a change of tack, they went up the guts with some pick and go drives. After a strong carry by Arno Botha, Fardy went off his feet and Carbery reduced their leeway to 12-9.
Munster regrouped behind the gainline well when Haley gathered Byrne’s chip, and Rory Scannell found touch almost on half-way from deep behind his own line. But no less than when they themselves were reduced to 14 players, now when Munster were down a man Leinster again upped their intensity, putting together sustained and accurate rugby thus far in a pointedly seeking to use the full width of the pitch.
The score felt inevitable from the moment Ringrose moved Byrne’s skip pass on before Conway made the tackle, thus enabling Larmour to give Lowe a run up the left. Ryan took a superb line to provide further momentum, and when Byrne and Ringrose went wide right, cue the Leinster frontrow. Healy straightened and passed left to right across his body, as did Furlong, for Cronin to cut back and score. Byrne converted and suddenly it was 19-9.
Leinster went for the jugular, introducing Johnny Sexton, who immediately made a line break and upped the tempo further, but Henshaw couldn’t hold onto the ball when threatening to break through.
Munster were in even more acute need now. Another scrum penalty had some of their supporters out of their seats. Cue another couple of straight-running, one-off attacks. The first ended with Stephen Archer losing the ball in a tackle by Van der Flier, Ryan completing the turnover, and a second came to naught when Kilcoyne lost the ball in a tackle by Andrew Porter. It summed up their bluntness.
Meanwhile, mystifyingly, despite being two scores down entering the last 10 minutes and needing to chase the game, JJ Hanrahan remained on the bench rather than being employed as a second playmaker from ‘12’ or ‘15’.
Finally, in the 72nd minute, Hanrahan was belatedly introduced, instead of Carbery rather than being used in tandem with him, although in truth Carbery had been starved of the ball for some time by then. His departure hardly seemed to register, so certain did the outcome seem by then.
When they finally went to the outside channel, Stander slightly over-ran O’Mahony’s offload and couldn’t prevent the ball dribbling over the touchline.
Van der Flier was then given a standing ovation for his remarkable 77 minute shift, and when his man-of-the-Match award was immediately announced, it prompted another huge cheer.
As the crowd awaited on final attacking scrum, the Grandstand also afforded the nearby Lowe an ovation as well. Right on cue, Sexton and Rory O’Loughlin, with a lovely pass, worked a one-on-one for Lowe against Haley. That’s all he needed, standing up the Munster fullback and stepping him, and Farrell couldn’t prevent the touchdown either.
As many in red began to leave, Sexton hooked his touchline conversion well wide and slapped his foot in annoyance. He’s a hoot. No one else in blue was remotely unhappy.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Byrne pen 3-0; 6 mins: Carbery pen 3-3; 25 mins: Carbery pen 3-6; 35 mins: Byrne pen 6-6; 40 (+7 mins): Byrne pen 9-6; (half-time 9-6); 46 mins: Byrne pen 12-6; 51 mins: Carbery pen 12-9; 55 mins: Cronin try, Byrne con 19-9; 80 mins: Lowe try 24-9.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Dave Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock (capt), Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan
Replacements: Rory O’Loughlin for Henshaw (32-40 and 78 mins), Scott Fardy for Toner (40), Johnny Sexton for Byrne (58), Bryan Byrne for Cronin, Ed Byrne for Healy, Andrew Porter for Furlong (all 62), Nick McCarthy for McGrath (71), Max Deegan for Van der Flier (77). Sinbinned: Lowe (25-35 mins).
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (Capt), CJ Stander, Arno Botha.
Replacements: Stephen Archer for Ryan, Fineen Wycherley for Kleyn, Jack O’Donoghue for Botha (all 58 mins), Alby Mathewson for Murray, Dan Goggin for R Scannell (both 68s), Alby Mathewson for Murray (67, Liam O’Connor for Kilcoyne (70), JJ Hanrahan for Carbery (72), Kevin O’Byrne for N Scannell (77). Sinbinned: N Scannell (45-55 mins).
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).