Earls injury fears cloud derby dud
LEINSTER 24 MUNSTER 19
AS post World Cup pick-me-ups go, this was not quite what the Ireland coach ordered.
It was the customary, full-on derby encounter with no shortage of will or effort before an expectant crowd of more than 48,000 but, if Irish rugby is seeking a fresh way forward after their quarter-final dismantling by Wales a month ago, there was little sign of it here.
True, rustiness must be factored in, with many front-liners still feeling their way back into provincial duties after returning from New Zealand, and combinations still to be solidified and the pernickety refereeing of Pascal Gauzere (a penalty count more common in a Gaelic football match) did not help -- although, for the most part, he was reacting to what he was dealt with.
Wales showed the value of deep alignments and hitting the ball at pace in Wellington but those lessons have yet to be heeded, judging by what we saw here in 80 minutes of structure-less fare.
Both defences held up well and there were strong individual performances from the likes of Mike Ross, Sean O'Brien, Jonathan Sexton, Ronan O'Gara and, in spurts, Lifiemi Mafi, but a game that broke down to a kicking duel between the respective out-halves tells its own story.
It was a Pro12 contest that will give the provinces' respective Heineken Cup opponents a degree of hope but, now that this is out of the way, you would expect a lift in performance from both sides next weekend -- it is much needed.
Seeing Keith Earls helped off the pitch after fielding the kick-off was an instant blow to morale (a suspected knee ligament injury with updates due after a scan this weekend) but Munster responded by surging deep into Leinster territory, where O'Gara knocked over the first penalty after an offside home defence blocked his drop-goal attempt.
Leinster dominated the next 10 minutes and with O'Brien and Cian Healy making the yards they were unable to in their last match against Wales, Sexton soon had Joe Schmidt's men 6-3 up with a quarter-of-an-hour gone.
The 'that was then' vibe was forcibly demonstrated when World Cup colleagues O'Brien and Conor Murray went at -- O'Gara levelling the scores after an earlier breakdown infringement.
The ebb and flow continued and after Ross got to work on Wian du Preez , Sexton made it 9-6 after Munster struggled to recover from the wheeling scrum.
There was still a lack of shape to the game but Leinster's continued scrum advantage saw them set up base camp 12 yards from the visitors' line.
Another tackle-busting surge from Healy after good line-out possession set up quick ball and Ross charging. Tight-heads are not ordinarily expected to be skip-pass specialists but if Ross could have found Luke Fitzgerald free on the left a try was certain; as it was, the Corkman's surge for glory was thwarted by excellent defence.
However, they got a reduced reward through Sexton when Munster strayed offside only for O'Gara to peg it back to 12-9 on 33 minutes following good mauling by his forwards and a decent drive by Damien Varley.
The scrummaging battle was a story of dominant tight-heads but though BJ Botha was going strongly, the penalties continued to fall Leinster's way with Sexton pushing them out to 15-9 before half-time.
The half-time whistle brought relief from the tedium.
It had been a half where Fitzgerald, Isa Nacewa and Doug Howlett -- three of the most potent attackers in Europe had not received a pass in anger and it was hard not to feel sympathy for the TV audience on TG4, who could be forgiven for getting out their English-Irish dictionaries to see if they could discover the Irish word for 'muck'.
The second half started on a brighter note, Munster producing some good inter-linking play to set up an O'Gara penalty for 15-12, only for Fitzgerald to finally get an opportunity -- a nice behind-the-back pass -- which saw Leinster force the penalty for a score of 18-12.
Now, there were signs of a definite increase in tempo and, finally, a bit of depth as O'Brien tore onto possession to set up front-foot ball in the scoring zone. When it was moved swiftly right, Nacewa was almost in at the corner but Munster's defence again shone through.
Munster had been coming off second best in the back-row and Tony McGahan's decision to unleash Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan on 50 minutes looked a proactive move.
They couldn't prevent Sexton putting through an exquisite quick kick to the corner to keep the heat on and a couple of minutes later, Rob Kearney's fabulous left-footed drop goal from 35 metres was the most skilful moment of the game.
At 21-12, Leinster's advantage had assumed ominous proportions and it was soon double scores after a decent backline move (the rare sight of players hitting the ball from deep) led to another penalty for Sexton and a yellow card for Denis Leamy (his eighth in this fixture).
The penalties kept coming but O'Gara could not convert from 45 metres and the game dipped again despite injections of freshness from the benches.
However, drawing on the extra spark provided by O'Mahony and Coughlan, Munster came on strong. With Jamie Heaslip in the bin and Ross substituted for Jamie Hagan, the visitors put the heave on under the Leinster posts and got a penalty try for their efforts.
O'Gara's conversion made it 24-19 but Leinster were able to close them down until the final whistle.
Munster deserve credit for fashioning a losing bonus point when Leinster appeared ready to pull out of sight and Joe Schmidt will be glad of the launch pad for Europe. However, the bottom line is that both sides could relate to the old rugby maxim of 'improve or lose'.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy (E O'Malley 72), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss (E Reddan 56); C Healy (H van der Merwe 60), R Strauss, M Ross (J Hagan 73), L Cullen (capt), D Toner (K McLaughlin 72), S O'Brien, S Jennings (R Ruddock 62), J Heaslip.
MUNSTER -- J Murphy (I Keatley 74); D Howlett, W Chambers, L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary 63); W du Preez (M Horan 71), D Varley, BJ Botha (J Hayes 77), D O'Callaghan (P O'Mahony 50), P O'Connell (capt), D Ryan, N Ronan (J Coughlan 50), D Leamy.
REF -- P Gauzere (France).