Simon Zebo received the opening kickoff – before this game I had visions of him having more than one opportunity to flash his trademark “Z” try celebration. As it turned out, the only z's on the night would come from the spectators!
As the saying goes, this “wasn't one for the purist” by any stretch, but it still struck me that both sides had clear gameplans which Joe Schmidt's men managed to execute more clinically and thus came out on top. Hopefully the onlooking Declan Kidney noticed that too.
For Leinster it seemed like the opening quarter was the time for trickery in order to manufacture a try to break the duck (which now stands at 299 minutes by the way) – there were barely two minutes on the clock when Sexton chipped forward to the corner where Rob Kearney couldn't manage to hold on and touch down. It would have been fitting for him to get it as he was the last blue player to score a try in Thomond almost exactly two years previous.
But it was uncanny...at almost exactly the moment the clock ticked over the twenty minute mark, unless a winger found himself in space out wide, the kicking game was taken off the table by the visiting side. It was either phases down the middle or more often than not lateral passing moves when they had the ball.
Munster also seemed to have a gameplan, and in my book it caused the most controversial feature of this game – Nigel Owens' handling of the scrums.
To call Marcus Horan a “wily prop” would be the understatement of the millennium. And of course everyone knew going into this contest that the home side was missing crucial players, so having seen how much Leinster struggled without Mike Ross and Nathan White the previous week, the best way to level the playing pitch would be to negate Ross' ability to lock the scrum.
Now before I carry on, I hope you appreciate the restraint I'm showing by avoiding all the obvious (if a tad inappropriate in some cases) jokes emanating from a female spectator roaring “C'mon Nigel make up your mind I'm getting frustrated here!” into a pitchside RTE mic at one point. Not easy I can tell you!
But back to matters rugby...yes, Nigel made a hames of the scrums. It took him 12 goes to get a clean feed without a need to reset. If he was guilty of anything, it was paying too much respect for the occasion rather than calling what he could see in front of him. If so, that's a shame to see from a ref who I'd normally fully expect to be able to handle a contest at this high a level.
He knew full well it was Horan that was playing “silly-beggars” but it was his decision to threaten both him and Ross with yellows together in the 11th minute that was to set the tone for the rest of the match.
He even had a word with Horan personally at a later scrum. By rights the loosehead should have gone then, but as Owens had already warned the two of them, he probably felt it would give Leinster an “unfair” advantage in such a big match.
Instead he put the two props off at the start of the second half and it was during those ten minutes that Munster got three kickable penalties, and but for ROG missing one of them they could have actually had a lead to defend in the closing stages.
Now speaking of Munster's outhalf, it wasn't his best night at the office by a long stretch. A couple of missed penalties here, a dropped pass there...let's just say if Gordon D'Arcy had made as many mistakes on the night there would be calls for his head from both sets of fans.
But not so for O'Gara, and it's true he has for the most part played to his usual standard over the season. The point I want to make about this display is that it supports my theory that gifted though he may be, he has just never been captain material. With Mick O'Driscoll on the pitch I was surprised to see the outhalf get the nod and I really think it takes from his game.
Meanwhile his nemesis in blue was busy slotting his placekicks and executing the “non-kicking” gameplan while on offense – for the second and third quarters I don't think Sexton ever looked up once when he had the ball to see if there was space behind the Munster line. The home side displayed a strong solid defence throughout that forced many a turnover, but Joe Schmidt's plan seemed to be to tire them out so he could capitalise with his bench in the final quarter and as it turned out it proved to be correct.
When O'Gara levelled the scores at 9-9 on 53 minutes, two key things happened – Mike Ross came back on the pitch from his yellow card, and also the likes of Leo Cullen and Sean O'Brien were introduced into the fray – they probably were due at the 60 minute mark but with McLaughlin already off it seemed logical to bring them in at that point.
From that moment on there was really only going to be one winner – Munster were still forcing turnovers but would then lose it in contact themselves, plus their lineout was an absolute shambles all evening. A deft chip & chase from Isa Nacewa, the first of his series of late contributions that got him man of the match, led to the penalty which Sexton easily converted before going off no doubt satisfied with his night's work.
He was replaced by Ian Madigan who has played well above his pay-grade all season and deserved a chance to play his part. I did feel he made a major error by taking that quick lineout in the opposition 22, despite Ralph Keyes' assertion that it was the “right option”. For Munster maybe! Leinster are up by 3, in Thomond Park, with just over 10 minutes left. I can't see any other call but to let the lineout form (especially since you've owned the set-piece all night) and eat up some more time with phases.
But the Blackrock outhalf was to more than make up for that rush of blood...first with the perfectly-executed crossfield kick to Nacewa and then with a win-clinching & bonus-point-denying dropgoal any outhalf in world rugby would have been proud of. I have heard talk that Mat Berquist is off to France next season – I really hope that Madigan is rewarded with a spot on the bench for the Heineken quarterfinal as he has definitely earned it.
Although this was a Pro12 contest, as always is the case when these two rivals meet each other, the question needs to be asked afterwards...how are the two shaping up for those European contests next weekend?
Well in Munster's case, I don't think they need be too disheartened by this performance. The way they played without crucial players like O'Connell, Murray and Ryan simply proved the wisdom in not risking them. Though Ulster will definitely feel they can equal Leinster's result, there is no doubt that those three will do more than fix the various problems Tony McGahan's men were having Saturday night.
As for Leinster, well all I can say is that I'm “quietly confident”. The Cardiff Blues have absolutely nothing to lose coming to Dublin next weekend so cannot be taken for granted, but there was enough evidence in this encounter (when the two sides were allowed to play rugby of course!) to suggest that Joe Schmidt & his coaching staff can come up with the right gameplan to get the job done. JLP
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