There’s rarely a whole lot of agreement among fans when it comes to this fixture, but I reckon everyone watching, no matter what colours they were wearing, thought the penalty Caelan Doris conceded in minute 39 of the first half was a really silly one. However, on second look, even that seems up for debate.
Not that it wasn’t a penalty, mind you. He’s clearly in Conor Murray’s way, no doubt about that. But it was more a case of really clever work by Jean Kleyn the way I saw it. Doris’ actual tackle on Rhys Marshall was good, possibly too much so, in that he took a split second when on the ground to appreciate it.
In that moment the “caterpillar” ruck starts to form and by the time the Leinster & Ireland number 8 plots an escape route, in steps Kleyn to both join and, for good measure, put Doris in a “damned if he does damned if he doesn’t” situation. It was actually better for him to at least attempt to get up but referee Andrew Brace really had no choice but to blow his whistle.
Of course what was so significant about that moment was that it gave JJ Hanrahan a perfect opportunity to stretch his side’s lead back to double digits going into the break. Possibly another thing all those watching agreed on was that he’d pop it over, especially as he had already nailed an early score from further out.
Alas this one just got pulled a fraction too much and ended up hitting the upright, but not to worry - since the clock now said 40:37, once a Leinster player ended up controlling the rebound there would be nothing left to do but put it to touch and be thankful we were even within bonus point range after the half that had just gone.
But as we all know, that rugby ball can do funny things. In the end it rolled perfectly from Robbie Henshaw’s point of view so he could gather it. However, from Rhys Marshall’s point of view, for a second it looked like it was in a position for him to do a sliding grab (like full backs tend to do when chasing a ball rolling towards their own line with chasers gaining behind them) to give his side a chance of getting even more than three points.
Whether or not it was a back v forward thing or just the bounce brought it closer to Robbie, the Leinster centre got there first yet with Marshall already committed to his slide, he ended up halting Henshaw’s progress by chopping him down. Technically the ref had to call it a “no arms tackle” but while his intentions weren’t malicious, I don’t think they included an attempt to tackle either. Let’s just say that in football, that exact same collision would result in a straight red, yet the way it happened here, we can call it a “rugby incident” and leave it at that.
Back to the action...the play went on for a minute before the assistants told Brace about the challenge and Luke McGrath was keen to clear to touch to end the half. But now, armed with a penalty, even though it was in our own 22, Johnny Sexton made a similar positive decision to one he took against Ulster a fortnight ago. Sure, we could go for the safe option, but what say we back ourselves to get something better instead?
The punt to touch left the lineout still in Leinster’s half, but after James Ryan took “one off the top” and Henshaw barged his way closer to halfway, the attack patterns which we had already shown were once again moving us forward, with Caelan Doris no doubt more than happy to be among those doing the heavy lifting along the way.
A few phases followed before Jordan Larmour, himself having had issues of his own earlier, brilliantly spun through the first tackle and drove past several more attempts before being hauled down at Munster’s 10m line. Now Brace had no choice but to ping James Cronin for no clear release and suddenly Sexton had a chance to fully justify his decision moments earlier and securing what everyone was calling a “six-point swing” before the half.
Much has been said about the two placekicks Hanrahan missed on the night, and while I don’t agree that you can simply add those scores to the result to show what it would have been, those six points would have done wonders for his team’s psyche. But to focus on those would be to ignore the importance of two that Leinster did make - first, this one from Sexton which, while definitely in his range, came with a lot of pressure, and the second...well, I’d better set the scene for that one in a “roundabout” way as well.
Fast forward to minute 65. Assuming the watching neutrals were cheering on Munster (safe bet) there were probably a lot of curses being fired in the direction of eir Sport commentator Conor Morris when he suggested that the home side might be on the way to keeping Leinster tryless.
And to be fair, Munster were still 10-6 ahead as they were at the break and after a clock-sapping 13-phase set, Conor Murray pinned Leinster back in their own 22, as full back Mike Haley had already done several times. But here’s where I actually had an issue with the commentary team.
They were rightly singing the praises of Murray, Beirne and de Allende up to that point, yet without acknowledging that in each case, their opposite numbers McGrath, Ryan and Henshaw were also on top of their game. That’s what made this match such a classic in my book.
And they also seemed to be lopsided when it came to teamwork. Munster definitely put together many smart attacking sets when they were in the lead and the kicks to touch in our 22 would have made Ronan O’Gara himself proud; but each time, Leinster made the exit look remarkably easy, and this one set us on our way to taking the lead for good.
Usually McGrath would just punt to touch but here he spotted a sniff of a chance on the blind side of the maul and ran with it. With decent support (including makeshift winger Jamison Gibson-Park) we managed to trap the retreating Munster men offside and thanks to a great kick to touch by Ross Byrne (also missed in commentary btw despite having raved over a similar one from Ben Healy earlier) we now had an attacking lineout near their 22.
More often than not in these situations I cringe when I see the hooker throwing the dart high because I imagine it sailing over all the forwards and making it a midfield lottery. But this looping throw from Ronán Kelleher was perfect to meet James Ryan’s leap and with Josh van der Flier safely guiding it to Luke McGrath, the called play could now be set in motion.
No surprise in seeing that man Robbie Henshaw again popping up to provide the front foot ball - rarely did we stray from him as an option and why should we when it kept on working. Then when the ball gets worked out in the opposite direction, once again van der Flier was providing the link play getting it to Ross Byrne, who had a little surprise in store for the defensive wall rushing at him.
His little dink forward could not have sit up more perfectly for Hugo Keenan to take, but he still had a lot of work to do as the offload needed to be both quick and accurate - sure enough it was both as Larmour took it in his stride to wrong-foot Keith Earls and just like that we were in for a score. But even then we weren’t done.
Just look at the difference between where Larmour scores the try and where Ross Byrne places the ball for the conversion. Right against the touchline, on the wrong side of the pitch for a right-footer, with the weather doing all it could to distract him, and not to mention the pressure of the situation. None of them a bother to him. Popped it over like it was nothing. Second big match in a row where he has played a crucial role.
Naturally things were far from over at that stage, but you couldn’t tell that to Leinster’s defence. For me, our biggest feature this season has been an ability to be stronger without the ball in the closing stages even with a totally clear bench, which is a sign of a squad that knows what they’re about in such a key area.
This was no exception, and the biggest feature here was twin tacklers meeting the point of first contact after almost every breakdown. Munster were to have two more goes at cracking us, but in the end ironically it was two of their best performers, Beirne and de Allende, knocking on each time.
Perhaps my account of the match appears a little different to ones you’ll see elsewhere. Since this is meant to be a Leinster fan site, I shouldn’t really apologise for giving it a slant towards the boys in blue, while other writers might have focused more on the fact that Munster built an early 10-0 lead only to throw it away.
But I honestly think that does Leinster a disservice. There’s no doubting the home side started the stronger and not only had a really good plan to pepper our back three with well-chased box-kicks (which came down with even more snow on them than was already on Thomond Park terraces at kickoff), but in Conor Murray they had arguably the best on the planet at it and in the height of his powers.
The first three points were after just five minutes and the try came after another penalty won at a scrum. From the lineout Murray read what was before him and managed to snipe his way to an attacking position. From there his forwards rumbled their way to the line before Beirne got over. Brace gave the touch down despite not seeing it so the decision had to stand despite no angles available from the TMO.
In case you think I’m saying it shouldn’t have been awarded, just to be clear I’m simply recounting what actually happened. Of course I have issues with some decisions from the night, or more to the point ones that weren’t made, like a couple of challenges on Hugo Keenan that weren’t picked up by anyone it seems, but for each one of those I’m sure Munster fans have similar situations where we were lucky.
The point is that Munster were good for their early lead, only with the proviso that even when it reached 10-0, Leinster hadn’t had a decent spell with the ball yet so we really didn’t know how the match was going to play out. As the half wore on, even before the extra play at the end of it, Sexton was doing a more than decent job of advancing us up the pitch.
What kept our side of the scoreboard down was the strength of Munster’s defence, with de Allende and Farrell strong in the tackle and Tadhg Beirne popping up regularly for his jackling clinics. Joking about Morris’ commentators’ curse aside, they really did look like they could have kept us tryless and they didn’t even need CJ Stander to be on top form to do it.
But there were mistakes by the home side which kept undoing their positives. Where they did well with the tactical kicking, they lost out when it came to adding to those early scores. Where they had success in the scrums, they lost out much more in the lineouts, sometimes with dodgy darts, others with good timing by James Ryan.
Of course I can appreciate their frustration in falling short against the old enemy yet again...this very website was born in 2008 when I felt the exact same frustration the other way. But wishing to break our hoodoo over them is not going to make it so. They are definitely improving and if we play them again this season, it will no doubt be just as close.
Still, I think we can feel good about our ability to dig our way out of a hole on Saturday without considering ourselves lucky. Now we’re in a decent position to close the gap even further on Conference A leaders Ulster although with the Irish Six Nations squad announced as I type, we’ll need to go Llanelli next weekend with a very different squad to this.
But if I must draw back and look at this match from a broader Irish point of view, the only thing that needs to be said is that this was the final instalment of a superb set of interpros over the holiday period. Nobody played perfectly, but all six matches were both entertaining and packed full with top notch displays, and to conclude I'll try for one more opinion we can all agree on - in these times we are all very grateful to have so much top flight rugby to enjoy. JLP