Munster’s box kick to nowhere gets only reward it ever deserves
Johann van Graan: ‘In terms of playing, we didn’t get a chance to because we got pinned’
Munster’s Andrew Conway competes in the air with Dave Kearney of Leinster. Photograph: Inpho
Ten years of inevitability. A fully stocked Munster failed to drag a mix and match Leinster into enough unfamiliar scenarios to have any chance of denying the perennial Pro 14 champions a fourth successive title.
Leo Cullen’s latest XV had victory sown up before the head coach even considered unleashing the quality - Lions, Kiwis and Ryan Baird - he held in reserve.
Munster came with nothing novel to upset the status quo. The promise of their gargantuan midfielders Chris Farrell and Damien de Allende being rammed down Ross Byrne’s throat briefly materialised before the box kick to nowhere got the only reward it ever deserves: a runners up medal.
“We currently can’t get past them. No team can currently get past them,” was Munster coach Johann van Graan sobering assessment. “That is not good enough for us, to lose in a final, we came here to win and believed that we could, but fair play to Leinster.
“They are exceptionally good. 15 players in their 23 played against England last weekend [Munster had five]. Just look at that bench, they are a phenomenal rugby team.
“You have to give it to them. They are currently the best team by a mile.”
In Ireland. Not in Europe. Not on planet rugby. It begs the question: what was Munster’s strategy to beat the best and where did the plan come unstuck?
“The game plan was to go and win a final,” Van Graan replied. “I thought they started the game well, kept us pinned in our 22. We scrambled well, got ourselves back into it, and it was really positive before half-time.
“Once they gain access to your 22 it is virtually impossible to get the ball off them. Once they go ahead it is virtually impossible to catch them. Look at the last two passages of the game you try and play against them and you literally get knocked back onto your own try line.
“As disappointing as that is that is currently factually what they do exceptionally well.”
The Munster coach cannot be accused of being disingenuous, but the other fact - that he does not have an answer for Leinster’s approach, even with the same number of Munster starters on the field from the Ireland team that beat England - is undeniable.
“They won two big battles: the battle in the air and the battle of the scrum. In terms of playing, we didn’t get a chance to because we got pinned.”
The benefits of empty sports arenas are few. Munster are desperate for a return of people to Thomond Park but Leinster do not seem to notice.
The rugby itself is the main element of this tribal gathering to suffer from our current circumstances. Self motivation takes its toll after 12 months of an awfully realistic nightmare. Munster have been doing an impressive job in this regard. The suspicion was that they were building up to this match or perhaps the next moment that will define their season; Toulouse and their glittering array of French magicians come to Limerick next Saturday.
A repeat performance would be a damning indictment of the current Munster coaches. Thomond Park cannot save them. The silence is constant at the moment.
“I think [TOULOUSE]is a totally different proposition that we face,” said Van Graan. “Leinster are a team that keep supplying the pressure. I think we know each other very well. Unfortunately it was another one try game. They score one and we didn’t score one.
“Next Saturday is another knockout but it is a totally different challenge.”
Early signals from this souped-up training session proved deceiving. Take the way Jean Kleyn wasted no time searching to destroy a heavyweight Leinster man. Cian Healy did well to recover from the heavy contact on 12 minutes. The tackle was so brutal and so cleverly assisted by Gavin Coombes that it allowed Joey Carbery to reduce arrears to 6-3.
Not long after, Carbery became road kill to Scott Fardy’s full steaming carry. Leinster players celebrated almost as loudly as Munster hailed the mini miracle of Coombes, with a little help from CJ Stander, holding up the old Wallaby blindside.
By then this finale had settled into a pattern; Leinster would keep punching holes - the most obvious rip in the fabric being Ronan Kelleher’s bullocking early run, before Josh van der Flier’s neat offload had Hugo Keenan scorching earth only for Robbie Henshaw’s clever line to be fully tracked by De Allende. Still, with the damn burst, it would need a sneaky intercept by Keith Earls to deny a try.
That was the difference really; Munster men were constantly putting out fires while Leinster players were running around splashing them with kerosene.
Stander is a case in point. The big South African may have lacked the emotional clout of a week ago against England but he earned Conor Murray a 51 metre penalty to level the derby only for the strike to float upwards and into the gale before fading off right.
Then, as the interval loomed, Carbery clipped the post with another long range miscue. It fed into the 10 year narrative of Munster leaving scores behind them in season defining games.
Munster and their leaking defence were missing half chances whereas Rory O’Loughlin twice failed to give Jordan Larmour a clear run to the right corner flag.
This might have proved costly if the visitors to Dublin could score next. Sure enough, Carbery levelled matters at 6-all on the stroke of half-time. Munster, toiling into the wind, could only be delighted.
We braced for a second half of epic proportions. Instead, all the doubt Munster had planted in Leinster heads was dissolved by a line break. Henshaw made the initial yardage before Jack Conan took up the baton. On went Leinster, jabbing and bullying Munster over their own try line, where Tadhg Beirne denied Conan’s next carry.
Rumble after rumble
The incumbent Ireland number eight was not to be denied, and after carrying half the Munster backline over the line off a scrum, rumble after rumble resulted in Conan forcing his way over just as Peter O’Mahony limped out of the fray.
“He is struggling a bit,” said Van Graan of O’Mahony. “He has a deep cut to his leg - it doesn’t look well.”
To make matters worse, Carbery kicked the restart dead.
Despite a full half hour remaining, and only a converted try between them, the rest felt inevitable.
Johnny Sexton arrived and Johnny Sexton departed for a head injury assessment after tackling Carbery, so it was Ross Byrne who retuned and kicked the points on 69 minutes that made it a two score game.
Munster emptied their bench - farewells to the RDS for Billy Holland and JJ Hanrahan - but, unlike Baird, they were unable to impact the contest. Baird’s man handling of Stander was a glimpse into the future but the rest was as Van Graan neatly described it.
The lowest ebb on another underwhelming performance when it matters most was the sight of national hero Keith Earls fumbling the pill.