As you can see at the top of the sidebar, we have a lot of people in certain professions to be thankful for and it would be remiss of me not to offer more gratitude here before anything else. What an incredible job they continue to do - no amount of clapping, signs on windows or even paragraphs like this one will ever be enough to show our appreciation.
What a crazy year it has been, eh?
For most, the prevailing thing that made it that way was the uncertainty. And while rugby was the last thing we were worried about at the start of the lockdown, eventually it was one of the things we knew could help with the uncertainty elsewhere once it came back.
Of course we would have loved to be there in the Aviva Stadium in person, but under the circumstances, the 160 minutes of interpro rugby over the weekend were as perfect as they could have been. I’ll be chatting about Ulster v Connacht on the podcast during the week so let’s get down to business of harping on some Leinster rugby once more!
In my preview I couldn’t understand why the bookies were going for a 9-point Leinster victory. Sure, our form was nigh on “unbeatable” going into the break, but even had these two met back then it was bound to be close. I thought I was being optimistic going for a margin of 5 and in the end even that was too much. One of the reasons I named this post “twenty twenty” is that I thought that would have been a fairer result.
JJ Hanrahan had the honour of getting everything going, and after Robbie Henshaw received his kickoff, we proceeded to execute a curious exit strategy of running the ball out of our own 22. I say curious not because we shouldn’t ever back ourselves to do it, but we persisted with it throughout the first quarter without a whole lot of net reward. The first five minutes or so were understandably scrappy for both sides as they found their feet not only after such a long break, but also with the prospect of stricter interpretation of the breakdown laws.
The first big moment of the match happened after we won another penalty deep in our own half, this time at a scrum. RG Snyman and Damien de Allende were two massive additions to Munster’s ranks during the break, and much was expected of them here. They got their first reward when Snyman jumped across Caelan Doris to pinch a lineout, although it was to come at a price.
When I say his lifters let him go, I don’t mean to put the blame on them. He had to jump at an awkward enough angle to get to the dart first which meant that neither Holland nor O’Mahony were able to guide him straight down to the ground on both feet - instead his weight all went on one and that was a cruel way to end his involvement, especially so early, and it was made worse by the fact that another proven ball carrier in Dave Kilcoyne went off at the same time.
So to recap - in a match that was always going to be attritional around the contact area, and also a match where Leinster had added some extra muscle on the bench with a 6/2 split, Munster’s pack was down two replacements before the clock had even moved into double digits.
It certainly didn’t seem to dampen their spirits at first. When Leinster had the ball, they were doing everything they could to knock us out of any sequence of carries and/or passing moves we might have attempted. Between our sloppy lineouts and their speed around the breakdown we found it very difficult to get any kind of territorial gain especially in the first half.
But here was where Johann van Graan’s men probably had their biggest difficulty. At no stage during the contest did they manage two scores in a row. Each time they got points, Leinster were next to do so.
Sexton had to go deep into his playbook to create some space and a deft inside ball to Ringrose put him clean through to their 22. Eventually with a couple of penalty advantages of our own, a little kick pass through to Dave Kearney gave us an unkind bounce into touch. A look back at the replay showed De Allende “introducing himself” to the Leinster captain with a, er, “gentle nudge” in the back after he offloaded to Ringrose.
Anyway, the penalty was put to touch in the Munster 22 and we got our first chance to see how the boys in blue would fare in this situation. Well it wasn’t a 20-phase set, that’s for sure. Conan rose to take a lineout that actually worked, the maul rolled its way towards the line and Cian Healy was the one to get it down. Sexton converted, and for all the opposition dominance for the first quarter, the scores were level at the end of it.
Referee Andrew Brace continued to call breakdown penalties, many of them earned by CJ “The Immovable” Stander but like I said, whenever Munster got points Leinster were soon to follow. Having forged ahead by another 3 points with 5 minutes left in the half, we entered that phase where we have been known to score and this wasn’t lost on Sexton when he spurned a kickable chance with two minutes left to kick for touch 7m from the Munster line.
Our lineout was a shambles throughout the match. The stats say we lost 3 from 11 but if you add the ones that weren’t taken “cleanly” there would be more. This one was easily snaffled by Peter O’Mahony but we caught another break when he was met upon landing by Josh van der Flier who duly pinched it back off him. Suddenly we were on the attack as originally intended.
What happened next was a great bit of understanding between Henshaw and Ringrose, as the former dinked it through for the other to ghost past his opposite number before dotting down. With that defender being Chris Farrell, I might have thought twice before awarding him player of the match (if it had to be a Munster player I’d have gone for CJ). But still at that moment, after our southern cousins definitely had the better of the opening period, we managed to go into the break ahead by four.
Munster clearly needed to score first and to their credit, they did their best to mix things up in possession, particularly their young full back Shane Daly who had a few promising runs from deep, but they weren’t able to capitalise.
We had our own chances like a 5m scrum which was thwarted by another breakdown penalty, but eventually Farrell was brilliantly held up for a choke tackle by van der Flier and Sexton to force a scrum that led to what turned out to be the match-winning sequence, even though the set piece was about 30m from our own tryline.
Now I can’t ignore the one caveat from this score - Three Red Kings rightly pointed out a suspect clearout from Conan in the build up. To his credit, TRK neglects to point out that this incident was just before a crucial score so I’ll do that for him. I honestly don’t have an answer to Andrew Brace choosing not to blow his whistle, especially with the strict new interpretations - all we can do is marvel at what happened afterwards.
So there we were with a critical two-score lead and once we didn’t struggle with basic things like box kicks going too long, or even worse shipping a yellow card, the lead should have been easy enough to bring home. Unfortunately a couple of Luke McGrath kicks found Daly too easily and between that and CJ continuing to be a pilfering pest, Munster were able to apply the pressure enough for us to get a warning for too many penalties, particularly around the lineout.
Not long after Devin Toner joined the fray, he tried to recreate the actions of Mr Snyman from earlier (well the first bit anyway) and ended up getting more of Stander’s arm than Andrew Brace would have liked, so having given the warning, he had to go to his pocket.
Munster made quick work of making the extra man count, but even then it took a nice finish in the very corner from Keith Earls. It didn’t hurt that he his challengers were both scrum halves as Dave Kearney was forced off with an injury to be replaced by Jamison Gibson-Park, but when JJ Hanrahan struck a perfect touchline conversion, suddenly the lead was back to just four with plenty of time left on the sin bin.
Rhys Marshall looked lively when he replaced Niall Scannell at hooker but he perhaps was a bit too lively when he held Gibson Park off the ball to give Leinster yet another opportunity to reply quickly, one which Ross Byrne duly took to make it a seven point lead. Even before the restart, I was pretty much resigned to the match ending in a draw.
Again it was Daly trying to make something happen and eventually Munster were back in our 22 before a wonderfully disguised pass from Farrell deceived enough Leinster defenders for Andrew Conway to be able to skin James Lowe out wide and go over. Somehow JJ wasn’t able to add the extras despite this try being further in from the touchline than the previous one, giving Leinster in general, and Devin Toner in particular, an extra chance to bring the lead home.
After it was Gibson-Park’s turn to offer a poor box kick, Larmour was pinged trying to retrieve the situation at halfway, giving Munster a lineout outside our 22. Given the way the penalty count had been going (Leinster shipping 14 of the 22 overall, not at Premiership levels but still steep) there was every reason to expect this bout of possession to end in JJ having a chance to win it, even if it took 10,000 phases. Instead, we had something that was, well, let’s just say, “unexpected”.
Here’s what was supposed to happen - Munster were in the midst of rolling through some phases, making some yards here, being pushed back by Leinster tacklers there, much as had gone most of the match. At one point JJ was attempting a neat little inside ball back to Rory Scannell.
From there Garry Ringrose capped a fine outing by the Leinster centres by quickly sending it deep into Munster territory and while they did have a lineout in their 22 as the clock went dead, they were probably wise to call it a day and bring the losing bonus point home as their pack had too many more 70+ minute shifts than their opponents.
So far I have given two reasons for my title - 2020 the year, 20-20 the final score more suited to this match, but I also have one more. Many have pointed out that this was Leinster’s 22nd win in a row and statistically, that is absolutely correct. But I prefer to go by the stats from the 2019/20 season, disjointed though it may have been. This was victory number 20 on the bounce and although we may have had some luck along the way to this one, I reckon perhaps the previous 19 meant we had earned it.
Anyway - that’s as much as I can get out of this match. I chose the lead photo because while we’re always up for this particular clash, it was still much more about the occasion. I was glad the boys didn’t disappoint, and I’ll look forward to them serving up another classic should the sides meet again in a couple of weeks. JLP
First three photos - ⓒINPHO/Dan Sheridan