Leinster keep Munster at arm’s length to continue Aviva dominance

James Lowe scores two tries as Leo Cullen’s side make it four wins on the spin in fixture

Leinster’s James Lowe claims the ball ahead of Munster’s  Niall Scannell during the Guinness Pro 14 game at the  Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Leinster’s James Lowe claims the ball ahead of Munster’s Niall Scannell during the Guinness Pro 14 game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Leinster 30 Munster 22

When you know how to win, you know how to win. It’s become a happy habit for Leinster in recent times, not least in this marquee fixture, and despite Munster having large tracts of the contest, the Guinness Pro 14 champions led from the 10th minute and when Munster twice came back from 14- and 15-point deficits to make it a one-score game, they promptly pulled two scores clear again.

So it was that they made it eight wins out of nine since this fixture returned to a redeveloped Aviva Stadium, and four on the spin against their main foes. In the main, and in an encounter overtly dominated by referee Ben Whitehouse and his TMO, they just had more of a clinical edge and, thanks in the main to James Lowe’s finishing and Ross Byrne’s immaculate boot, kept the scoreboard ticking more readily.

In a contest where there was always a feisty edge, Munster aren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to find Lowe’s constant desire to be involved after the whistle more than a trifle irritating, but there’s no doubt he again backed it up with his deeds too. In this, he was helped no end by Jamison Gibson-Park.

Finishing off two try assists by his Kiwi kindred spirit, Lowe took his tally to four tries in four games this season, and 15 in 18 appearances for Leinster.

After falling 14-0 down early on, Munster responded with two tries, and after falling 27-12 down to Lowe’s second try and Leinster’s third, managed a third of their own too.

They were all completed in familiar fashion, off a lineout maul and two off their scrum power, although these were the reward for some good running rugby.

There was much to admire in the ambition and width which Munster brought to the contest. Often using tight-five forwards as first receivers not only to truck it up but more often to tip the ball on or pull it back, they worked Joey Carbery into space to utilise his smooth distribution.

Outside him, the centres Dan Goggin and Sammy Arnold ran hard at Leinster with energy and purpose, and the outside backs saw plenty of the ball as well.

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne scores a try during the Guinness Pro 14 game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Munster’s Tadhg Beirne scores a try during the Guinness Pro 14 game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

And yet, as on the scoreboard, for the most part Leinster kept them at arm’s length, hardly competing at the breakdown, and comfortably keeping their numbers across the line. With Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander and Niall Scannell leading the charge, Munster had almost 70 per cent of the possession and territory, Leinster made over twice as many tackles, with Dan Leavy, James Ryan and Seán O’Brien making energetic returns to the starting line-up.

They are, as we’ve known for some time, spoilt for choice.

The evening began with the two teams walking out to a predominantly blue backdrop, albeit free Leinster flags had clearly been stationed in the lower tier. Despite ticket sales having supposedly passed 50,000, there were even more empty green seats than the smattering of red for the kick-off, prior to which Rhys Ruddock informed Whitehouse that the teams had lined up the wrong way round. So the teams exchanged halves and Munster kicked off into the Lansdowne Road end of the ground.

A scrappy, stop-start beginning to the game followed, with Lowe underlining his offloading threat early on. Gibson-Park was on hand to gather the first and make inroads before some fine defensive work by Peter O’Mahony, and when Rob Kearney knocked on, Goggin’s perfectly weighted kick in behind was fumbled by the covering Gibson-Park.

However, after three rumbles off the base of a five-metre scrum, Devin Toner cut down Jean Kleyn and Jack McGrath won the turnover. Threat over.

Lowe was the dangerman again when availing of Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam contesting with each other for Gibson-Park’s box kick to gather and scamper up the wing before being bravely tackled by Carbery.

Soon after, Lowe was releasing Leavy with a no-look inside pass. The flanker beat David Kilcoyne’s despairing tackle and offloaded brilliantly to Gibson-Park. And when Lowe failed to gather the scrumhalf’s pass under pressure from Keith Earls, it seemed the Munster winger had just about timed his tackle.

However, Whitehouse and his TMO, Jon Mason, decreed that Earls had tackled Lowe fractionally early. Slow-motion replays possibly made Earls’s timing look worse than it was. It was a tight call and in the context of the game, it was a significant because, as Earls was also yellow carded, it had ramifications beyond the seven points awarded to Leinster.

With Earls off the pitch, soon after Byrne crosskicked to Lowe inside the Leinster 22 and after going up the line with another penalty, rumbles by Toner and Ryan led to Gibson-Park flinging out a long skip pass to Lowe on the blindside touchline, where the winger barrelled through the tackle of another Kiwi, Alby Mathewson, to score in the corner. Byrne converted for a 14-0 lead.

Munster needed a big response, and despite being down to 14 men, provided one too. Twice going to the corner, they were rewarded when they regrouped their maul, working the ball back through Niall Scannell and O’Mahony to Beirne, with the captain and Tommy O’Donnell helping to propel Beirne over the try-line.

Carbery missed the touchline conversion, but soon began bringing his class and influence to bear. First there was a typically balanced break out from restart, then plenty of tidy passing out wide before a perfectly executed kick into the corner. After Goggin nearly scored when breaking Gibson-Park’s tackle, this effectively led to the five-metre scrum from which Stander took the tackles of Gibson-Park and Byrne to score, albeit with a hint of a fumble.

Carbery converted. Game on, before Leinster responded in turn, though you’d have got long odds on the first three-pointer of the day and first turnover penalty coming after Kleyn, of all people, failed to clear out little Gibson-Park, of all people, and so O’Donnell was pinged for not releasing.

Byrne made it 17-12 and after Leinster withstood two more passages of bright attacking rugby from the visitors, Beirne knocking on after rolling out of a tackle before Rory O’Loughlin’s good defensive read on Conway earned a relieving penalty. This in turn led to another penalty for collapsing, and Byrne made it 20-12 with the last kick of the half.

Within a couple of minutes of the restart, another big call went against Munster, and more dubiously. In tackling Robbie Henshaw, Arnold was adjudged to have deliberately knocked on before Earls scampered 80 minutes to the try line.

While it was clearly a knock-on in the tackle, the penalty seemed excessive. Leinster kicked into the corner and in almost an exact reprise of their second try, Gibson-Park looped a pass back to the blindside wing above the leaping Earls, for Lowe to gather and again show his strength to take Kleyn’s tackle finish one-handed in the corner. Most of his body was over the touchline when touching down, but in the air and again, Byrne converted from the touchline for a 27-12 lead.

At this point, the penalty count was 8-2 in Leinster’s favour, whereupon a flurry of seven in a row were awarded to Munster. Carbery made it a two-score game with a fine 45 metre penalty after James Tracy’s high hit on Sweetnam, and Munster’s pack went to work, first with a big maul form which Scannell rumbled to within inches of the line, and then three scrums and penalty under the posts. From the last, although Andrew Porter and co withstood the heave better, Munster’s scrum did enough to tie down the Leinster backrow for Mathewson to skate over.

Game back on, and it could have been a very interesting finale, but from the restart Stephen Archer inanely blocked Fergus McFadden’s chase – eh, wildly applauded by Lowe coming across from the opposite wing – and Byrne’s penalty restored the two-score lead until the final whistle.

SCORING SEQUENCE: 10 mins penalty try 7-0; 15 mins Lowe try, Byrne con 14-0; 20 mins Beirne try 14-5; 28 mins Stander try, Carbery con 14-12; 33 mins Byrne pen 17-12; 40 (+3 mins) Byrne pen 20-12; (half-time 20-12); 45 mins Lowe try, Byrne con 27-12; 56 mins Carbery pen 27-15; 67 mins Mathewson try, Carbery con 27-22; 70 mins Byrne pen 30-22.

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Jack McGrath, James Tracy, Michael Bent; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock (capt), Dan Leavy, Seán O’Brien.

Replacements: Cian Healy for McGrath (half-time), Andrew Porter for Bent (46 mins), Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (54), Seán Cronin for Tracy (56), Josh van der Flier for O’Brien (63), Noel Reid for Byrne (71), Dave Kearney for McFadden (76), Mick Kearney for Ryan (77).

MUNSTER: Andrew Conway; Darren Sweetnam, Sammy Arnold, Dan Goggin, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Alby Mathewson; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Chris Cloete for O’Donnell (47 mins), James Cronin for Kilcoyne (54), Billy Holland for Kleyn, JJ Hanrahan for Sweetnam (both 71), Kevin O’Byrne for Scannell, Ciaran Parker for Archer, Duncan Williams for Mathewson (all 74).

Referee: Ben Whitehouse (WRU).

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