Kearney takes fizz outof Thomond
AFTER all the hype, this Good Friday Magners League showdown lived up to its billing last night with Leinster just about notching up their third win in-a-row over Munster after another compelling entry in this fiercest of Irish derbies.
Leinster's victory was based on disciplined defence and a refusal to panic despite coming under the severest of pressure, while Munster will rue the fact that they could not take greater advantage of the visitors' two sin-binnings.
It was an evening of strong overseas performances from Jean De Villiers, Isa Nacewa and Stan Wright in particular while, looking ahead to Ireland's summer tour, Leinster scrum-half Eoin Reddan made a powerful statement, with decent showings from team-mates Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen. Of Munster's Ireland contenders, Donncha O'Callaghan, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery and David Wallace put in reasonable shifts without outplaying their opposite numbers while Alan Quinlan, who did, is not part of Declan Kidney's plans.
Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton very much are part of those plans and although the Munster out-half shaded this one with five kicks from five, two better than his rival, this selection conundrum is still very much in the balance.
It was first blood to O'Gara after just 45 seconds when he blocked Sexton's attempted line kick. Following his lead, the Munster scrum cajoled their heavier Leinster counterparts into a penalty which O'Gara stroked over from 43 metres for 3-0.
From the restart, the crowd started on Sexton when he failed to send the ball 10 metres but this time it was the visitors who won the scrum penalty and the Leinster out-half found good position in Munster's 22. After Mick O'Driscoll robbed Leinster's throw, John Fogarty found Jamie Heaslip with his next effort and Leinster tried to work their backline only to be thwarted by excellent defence, Quinlan pulling off a particularly thunderous tackle. A sweeping Munster move, with superb work from De Villiers and Jerry Flannery, required desperate cover defence from their opponents and Munster, despite coming under considerable scrum pressure, continued to put the squeeze on. When Leinster captain Cullen was binned for a deliberate knock-on, O'Gara made it 6-0 from just outside the 22 with 14 minutes gone.
But 14-man Leinster won a penalty inside Munster's half, following excellent work by Wright, and the decision to kick for touch rather than for the posts was greeted with scornful howls from the home fans. Sexton answered his mockers superbly by setting up a series of surges, with Wright again to the fore, and when O'Callaghan followed Cullen to the bin for killing the ball in front of the posts, the Leinster out-half brought it back to 6-3 after 18 minutes.
Four minutes later, a needless body check by Girvan Dempsey on De Villers (who was racing onto Tomas O'Leary's kick from an offside position) gave Munster another penalty. Jennings, forgetting referee Romain Poite's intolerance of back-chat, added another 10 yards and O'Gara made it 9-3.
The scrum was the only area where Tony McGahan's side were not on top and another penalty took Leinster into home territory allowing their backline to click through the gears. Gordon D'Arcy jinked brilliantly into space but when the hard work was done, the centre failed to find two spare men on the outside right with the try-line gaping. Then Kearney was held up just short before Leinster won another penalty in front of the posts, McFadden making it 9-6 while Sexton received attention.
Roared on by their fans, Munster came storming back and when the visitors were done for not retreating on the half-hour mark, O'Gara knocked over his fourth penalty for 12-6.
Reddan was having a big night and scorched past the Munster back-row to set Dempsey haring down the right only for Tomas O'Leary to cover back brilliantly and when the ball was moved left, De Villiers produced a stunning double tackle on D'Arcy and Fogarty only for Flannery to concede the penalty.
When Sexton fluffed the easy penalty from 30 metres out, the inevitable derision rained down but a couple of minutes later, the crowd was silenced when Nacewa's kick bounced perfectly into the arms of Kearney, who drove through the challenge of Doug Howlett for the game's first try.
Sexton's conversion from the left-hand touchline spoke volumes for his mental strength which reflected that of his team's and, after taken Munster's best first-half shots, it was Leinster who went in at the break 13-12 ahead.
With Cian Healy on for CJ Van Der Linde, Leinster started the second half determined to build on their advantage and Reddan continued to send his old team into panic with some superb running, ably supported by Wright. However, the visitors' scrum dominance was not been recognised by Poite, who allowed the home team to relieve the pressure with a dubious penalty award.
There was a further boost for the home team when Nathan Hines was yellow carded for his tackle on Ian Dowling -- a decision which seemed to have more to do with the winger's awkward land than any intent on the Scottish international's part -- O'Gara landing his fifth penalty for 15-13. Undeterred, Leinster continued to press and, when Sexton's garryowen was missed by O'Gara on his 22, McFadden just failed to claim the bounce for a certain try.
Sexton's mixed afternoon continued and a forward pass handed the advantage over with Horan and John Hayes bucking the scrum trend which nearly set Paul Warwick and Howlett free down the right only for Poite to call Munster back for blocking.
Nacewa's surge into Munster territory set up Sexton from 38 metres only for Sexton to miss his second kick. Yet, true to his see-saw evening, the St Mary's man responded almost immediately with a penalty from just outside the 22 and Leinster led 16-15 with 12 minutes left.
Desperately, Munster pushed for a winning score but Kurt McQuilkin's defensive system held true and this is a victory that will steel Michael Cheika's men for the daunting Heineken Cup visit of Clermont next weekend. For Munster, this rare defeat in their Limerick citadel will give hope to their quarter-final opponents Northampton but there was enough here to suggest both Irish teams could make the last four.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi, J de Villiers, I Dowling (S Deasy 58); R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery (J Flannery 68), J Hayes (T Buckley 68); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, N Ronan (J Coughlan 68), D Wallace (N Williams 72).
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; G Dempsey, F McFadden, G D'Arcy (S Berne 64), I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright (Van der Linde 75), J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde (C Healy 40); L Cullen, D Toner (O'Kelly 47); N Hines, S Jennings, J Heaslip.
REF -- R Poite (France)