Foley left to rue missed chance as Sexton shines
Leinster 16-13 Munster
When the house band employed by Leinster to try and generate an atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium struck up a funeral march with three-and-a-half minutes to go, it was supposed to be a play on Cian Healy's walk to the sin-bin; instead it was the soundtrack to Munster's season.
Three points down away from home to their biggest rivals and with their season on the line, the Reds had a chance to turn the corner and start looking upwards instead of over their shoulders.
It was a dramatic end-game this turgid match scarcely deserved and it could have gone down as a turning point for Anthony Foley. Instead, it was the same old story.
Ian Keatley kicked the ball to touch, and Munster mauled their way to the five-metre line where Leinster hauled the drive down. With advantage, Keatley spurned the wide-open spaces and held on to the ball and, when referee Ian Davies brought them back to the corner, they drove again and were unlucky not to win another penalty when Jamie Heaslip didn't roll away after stopping Mike Sherry at the line.
Still, the scrum meant Leinster were forced to bring on a prop; meaning Munster now had an extra man in the backline and, after just two phases off the scrum, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo were screaming at those inside to give them the ball so that they could march in, unimpeded.
Instead, the ball went to prop John Ryan who ignored the three men outside him to take contact. The chance was gone, but Heaslip didn't roll away at the next ruck which meant they could at least go home with the draw.
But Dave Kilcoyne had other ideas as he tapped the eminently kickable penalty and was hit hard by Ben Te'o who got up and then forced Mike Sherry into a knock-on. Game over.
Both coach Anthony Foley and skipper CJ Stander backed the loosehead in his decision and Stander had been close enough to stop Kilcoyne if he'd wanted to.
Now, a decade on from that famous day when they conquered Europe with Foley as captain, the two-time Champions Cup winners are now in grave danger of missing out on the top competition next season. The implications of failing to remain in the top six are seismic to an organisation like Munster, but if it doesn't happen they'll only have themselves to blame.
All around them, rivals are finding form and they face second-placed Connacht, seventh-placed Edinburgh - just a point behind them - and third-placed Scarlets in their remaining three games.
"We want to get in there," Foley said.
"It's something that everyone else will focus on, we'll turn our focus to Connacht and try and get a result up in Galway and see where that takes us. It's about winning rugby matches for us, everything else around that is white noise because it doesn't help. We just need to make sure we know what we're doing.
"You can't really hit them with the same stick over and over. I think they're getting that from everywhere.
"Where we need to be is playing the game and making sure we're winning the game, and putting a knife to people's throats isn't going to help the cause.
"What will help the cause is us being better at what we're doing, and we weren't a million miles away today, and it's about making sure that the next time we tog out that we're up there."
For Leinster, there was solace in the league table and another strong defensive display, but if Leo Cullen's men are to go and win this league they will need to improve when they have the ball.
Johnny Sexton scored all of their points, crucially nailing two second-half penalties Johnny Holland had put Munster in front, and added some edge to an otherwise blunt attack, but in repelling the red waves, the league's best defence moved closer to an all-important home semi-final on the road to Murrayfield.
"When it comes to the big games quite often it is (about defence). Your defence needs to be rock-solid and it is about taking your opportunities, whether that is with kicking penalties or taking (try-scoring) opportunities.
"From an attack point of view if we control certain parts of our execution some of that is our set-piece, our decision making in and around contact and protection of the ball that will lead to better attacks," said Cullen.
"We showed some really good signs, particularly in the first half, of stretching Munster. They gave up that (Robin Copeland) yellow card and the lads they went for it at stage.
"You know I wasn't really sure should the lads have gone for the three points at that stage at that time but they went with the decision and they came up with the goods Johnny scoring by the posts.
"I though we did stretch them in the first half but there were areas where we definitely could have been better."
While Cullen has real confidence in his out-half, there remains question marks about the No 10 shirt in Munster.
Johnny Holland also scored all of his side's points and, while his performance wasn't perfect, the decision to replace him with Ian Keatley with 23 minutes remaining was a questionable one.
The Dubliner's first act was to miss a tough kick and he wasn't at his best in open play either and, while the defeat came down to the decision-making of others in the end, the coach took plenty of flak for switching his playmakers as the game approached its denouement.
"Johnny was doing very well," Foley said. "I think it was 60 minutes into the game and we had a very experienced international out-half on the bench that has led us for the vast majority of the season.
"With a game as tight as that, you don't want to be putting on your 10 with five or ten minutes to go; you want to be making that change a small bit earlier.
"Keats got us into a position to win the game, you know? Johnny had done really well up to that point, he's obviously a very up-and-coming, promising player and he's at the start of his career I'd imagine.
"We had a very experienced No 10 on the bench and it was important that we gave him an opportunity to get into the game and get us into a position to win it, which he did. Unfortunately, we didn't do it."
He lives and dies on those big calls. Munster's season is now on life support.
LEINSTER - Z Kirchner (J McGrath 79); I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, B Te'o, D Kearney (F McFadden 69); J Sexton (I Madigan 77), E Reddan (L McGrath 69); J McGrath (C Healy 69), S Cronin (R Strauss 51), T Furlong (M Ross 64); D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 64); R Ruddock, J Murphy (J van der Flier 51), J Heaslip
MUNSTER - S Zebo; A Conway (D Sweetnam 76), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland (I Keatley 57), C Murray; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 48), N Scannell (M Sherry 48), S Archer (J Ryan 73); D Ryan (R Copeland 27), B Holland; D O'Callaghan (J O'Donoghue 65), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (capt)
Ref - I Davies (Wales)