Munster 26 Leinster 17
Munster’s need was the greater and it showed. Not only were they at home in front of a packed festive crowd, but they required a win to reclaim second place in Conference A from Connacht before next Saturday’s meeting between the pair in Galway and then, above all, James Lowe’s sending off in the 32nd minute meant Munster simply had to inflict only a third defeat of the season on the champions.
In a fractious and fragmented affair, there were so many interruptions for video replays that the first half almost lasted an hour. For all their desire, Leinster’s discipline was unusually awry, and having incurred only one yellow card this season until Saturday night, they had two yellows and a red by half-time here.
In effect therefore, Munster played against 13 men for seven minutes and against 14 for more than 50 minutes, yet ultimately they shared two tries apiece, and Munster’s came from a lineout maul and a late intercept.
Leinster weren't that much more potent, and in truth there have been higher quality affairs between the two. Although they recycled the ball for longer, with James Ryan's carrying awesome again, Munster competed strongly at the breakdown, and none better than man of the match Tadhg Beirne.
It was a measure of Leinster's intent that Cian Healy led out a strong Leinster XV on the occasion of his 200th cap for the province, although they were forced into a late reshuffle when Dave Kearney was withdrawn. Rory O'Loughlin switched to the wing, with Noel Reid promoted to inside centre and Conor O'Brien took his place on the bench.
Leinster were quickly into their recycling stride when Johnny Sexton's clever reverse kick-off earned a lineout, and Garry Ringrose made inroads when breaking Jean Kleyn's tackle. However, after Sexton was hit after passing inside and driven backwards and onto his back by Fineen Wycherley, he took exception and took off the flanker's helmet before throwing it at him. Wycherley pushed Sexton into the ground before Jack Conan intervened.
Following recourse to a video replay, Frank Murphy penalised Sexton, who was livid.
Both outhalves in turned failed to find touch from penalties - Mike Haley brilliantly keeping Sexton's infield - and in an edgy start Reid's knock-on was swiftly followed by Dan Goggin's intended skip pass to Keith Earls floating forward.
But it was Munster who made the first telling inroads when their backs clicked with a sumptuous move. Conor Murray fed Chris Cloete off a maul and he pulled the ball back, seemingly for Carbery, on the wrap. But, whether meant or not, the ball skipped Carbery and instead found Earls, who sped through the ensuing gap.
He couldn’t link with the supporting Rory Scannell but when Carbery chipped to the touchline, Scott Fardy high tackled Cloete. Munster sensed and seized their opportunity. Tapping into the corner, Niall Scannell’s throw found Wycherley, and Murray and Earls added their weight to help drive Cloete over the line to a thunderous roar. Carbery converted.
Almost from the restart, there was the game’s second all-in scrap after Healy’s high-armed tackle on Murray, which also earned the double centurion a yellow card.
Then, in the fall-out from Murray's high tackle on Larmour, first Lowe went at Murray on the ground before Andrew Conway intervened and cue another scrap, with Sexton throwing Carbery to the ground before the two outhalves shared some pleasantries. Tadhg Beirne, in between stemming two Leinster attacks with his trademark turnover penalties at the breakdown, was one of the first in for the scrap too. Munster were up for it alright, and none more than their ex-Leinster men.
Murphy warned both teams, through CJ Stander and a head-shaking Sexton, before sticking with his original decision, and Sexton opened Leinster’s account.
Recourse to the TMO was a recurring feature of the first-half, and no sooner had Healy returned than Leinster's other international prop, Tadhg Furlong, was sinbinned for catching Cloete high when the flanker had been held up in the tackle by James Tracy.
Frank Murphy, handling the situation and the plentiful advice, deemed it “an awkward collision” without intent.
Cloete, after lengthy treatment, was strapped up and stretchered off to sympathetic applause, and also to be replaced by Arno Botha.
But the next recourse to video replays signaled the end of Lowe’s involvement. Chasing a box kick by Luke McGrath, he stopped and didn’t contest, but this merely meant the airborne Conway, in completing the catch, somersaulted over Lowe and landed horribly on his neck and head.
Although there was again clearly no intent, and relatively little chants of ‘off’ as no-one wanted the game ruined, given the duty of care to the player in the air, and the outcome, there was a sad inevitability about Lowe’s red card.
When James Tracy was pinged for a no-arms tackle on Niall Scannell, despite playing against 13 men at this juncture Munster elected for the penalty and Carbery made it 10-3.
Soon after, Ryan was harshly penalized for not rolling away when effectively pinned by Murray, and when Stander looked equally culpable for diving off his feet. But there was no doubting the merit of Carbery’s thumping 45-metre penalty which left it 13-3 at the break.
After a first-half which lasted 57 minutes, on leaving the pitch Sexton engaged Murphy in conversation, prompting boos from some in the home crowd.
Within three minutes of the second-half though Josh van der Flier, who was doubling up as a flanker and sometime winger in the absence of Lowe, was penalised for not rolling away. Cue another Carbery penalty.
Leinster’s best trio of players, Ryan, Ringrose and van der Flier, carried in succession and when Wycherley ‘fringed’ Sexton kicked to the corner. Their first drive yielded a penalty and but for a ricochet off the base of the post Ringrose looked set to score from Sexton’s chip with the free play.
In the event, at the second time, from Ruddock’s take James Tracy was driven over and clearly grounded the ball, which another video replay confirmed. Sexton’s conversion made it 16-10.
Munster hammered at the blue line - Kilcoyne and Murray making inroads - before working the ball wide to Conway, but he was stopped just short of the line by Ruddock and Furlong. Despite reinforcements, he lost control of the ball and forced the pass, which eluded Murray.
Sexton made a big carry, and Larmour a clean break after Reid faked to pass, drew two men and slipped the fullback through the gap. From a penalty 40 metres out, Sexton again opted for the corner but Tracy’s throw was just out of Fardy’s reach at the tail.
When Sexton, looking surprised and disappointed, was part of a triple substitution, there was an audible cheer, more of a relief one suspects. It took the sting out of Leinster’s comeback, along with another Carbery penalty for offside against Van der Flier restoring Munster’s two score lead.
When Furlong and Ringrose soon followed, it seemed to signal the end of Leinster’s resistance. Not that Leinster were done, and again going to the corner and going through the phases, Earls - who had been moved into midfield for the final quarter - picked off Ciaran Frawley’s pass.
Although he had 80 plus metres to travel, ‘oul man Earls still has wheels and there was no catching him, of all people. Even Jordan Larmour abandoned the chase.
That was effectively that really, until a procession of leg-pumping carries culminated in Max Deegan plunging over with the last play.
Scoring sequence: 14 mins Cloete try, Carbery con 7-0; 24 mins Sexton pen 7-3; 35 mins Carbery pen 10-3; 39 mins Carbery pen 13-3; (half-time 13-3); 44 mins Carbery pen 16-3; 48 mins Tracy try, Sexton con 16-10; 65 mins Carbery pen; 72 mins Earls try, Bleyendaal con 26-10; 82 mins 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).