Leinster keep powder dry for Euro mission
LEINSTER 22 MUNSTER 18
Published 31/03/2014 | 02:30
Local bragging rights secured for a few weeks at least, Leinster's attentions now turn to the superstars of Toulon.
Everything that happened at Lansdowne Road on Saturday had to be viewed with a red and black tinge.
For both teams, next week's Heineken Cup quarter-finals loomed large and, while beating their rivals in front of a big home crowd was nice for Leinster, re-integrating internationals and getting a good hit-out with no injuries was the priority.
The European champions await Leinster next week and if the Blues want their crown back, they're going to have to improve significantly from the display they gave to beat Munster.
For both teams, the step-up in intensity will be huge, but while the Reds will have Thomond Park to fuel them, Matt O'Connor's men go into the bear pit on sunday when they will face a glittering array of international talent, with a couple of French superstars thrown in to boot.
It is easy to get drawn in by the names; the 10, 12, 13 combination of Messieurs Wilkinson, Giteau and Bastareaud; Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell on the wings; a potential second-row pairing of Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha, and all the rest.
Bernard Laporte is playing fantasy rugby, but he still tried and failed to get his hands on a couple of Leinstermen this winter and there are others high on his most-wanted list.
Ian Madigan grew up watching these men bestride World Cups and dominate the world game, but the out-half reckons Leinster have an advantage over the soldiers of fortune who don the Toulon colours.
"They've certainly got big names, but we've plenty of internationals in our side as well," he argued. "What we have over them is that we're playing for the club we grew up in. You saw with both sides tonight what that means.
"You're representing your club, where you grew up and where you come from. I would like to think that's going to give us the edge next week.
"I think when the going gets tough, away from home, when you're backs are against the wall and you've got a best friend either side of you, it's going to definitely make a difference."
The stadium was packed to capacity on Saturday, but, both on and off the pitch, the intensity was lacking.
Powder was kept dry, star names weren't risked and, when Toulon and Toulouse sit down to watch the action after their own battle, they will note the absence of key men Cian Healy and Peter O'Mahony.
Had the loosehead played, one imagines Leinster's night would have been far more comfortable; if Munster had been able to use their captain then they might have found that edge they lacked.
Michael Bent coped admirably in the scrum, but it was in the loose where the Clontarf tyro's influence was missed as the Pro12 champions hogged the ball, but failed to make the necessary gains to create holes in Munster's defence.
It was on the other side of the scrum where Leinster appeared to struggle, with Dave Kilcoyne getting under Mike Ross' skin and forcing a succession of penalties that helped Ian Keatley build a 9-0 lead before exchanging kicks with Madigan.
In this post-Six Nations period of re-adjustment, things were sloppy. All four half-backs had a go at kicking balls out on the full, while moments of inspiration were followed by mistakes. As half-time approached, Leinster went up a gear and kept their foot on the accelerator until they had a seven-point lead.
Madigan narrowed the margin to six at the interval, missing a kickable attempt on the stroke of half-time to bring it in further, but he made amends after a superb Eoin Reddan break that got the hosts on the front-foot.
Leinster were helped by Alain Rolland's threat to sin-bin both Ross and Kilcoyne for their part in the scrums, even though the penalty count was in Munster's favour. It neutralised a weapon and the hosts exploited the advantage.
For long spells they owned the ball and forced Munster, down to 14 after Kilcoyne's yellow card following repeat team offenses at the ruck, to make tackle after tackle. Finally, the dam broke, with Gordon D'Arcy and Ross carrying hard before Brian O'Driscoll fed the excellent Shane Jennings, who took Casey Laulala's tackle, before popping the ball back to the centre, who exploited the tired defence to score.
Madigan converted and, although there was plenty of endeavour from the Reds to get the lead back to a point following two Keatley penalties and good work from Simon Zebo, CJ Stander and Keith Earls, the Leinster fly-half ended it with an easy penalty after Tommy O'Donnell was penalised for crossing.
After all the talk of a wave of Munster emotion coming their way, Leinster had surfed it expertly and come out on the right side. Next week, it will be even more passionate down on the Cote d'Azur, but Madigan believes Matt O'Connor's influence will help.
"Munster started the game really well," Madigan reflected.
"There was a lot of talk in the run-up about the Irish selections, but regardless of that, Munster always bring great passion and they certainly did that.
"As Irishmen, we are very attached to the Munster-Leinster battle, whereas Matt coming from Leicester and Australia doesn't have that emotion attached to it and he is just thinking technically, 'how can we beat Munster.'
"He'll be doing the exact same for Toulon. He won't be thinking this could be Drico's last Heineken Cup match. He'll be thinking game plan. He was extremely calm when we came into changing room (at half-time). We had a chat, backs and forwards, then came together as a team. It really worked for us."
While Rob Penney identified the touch of O'Driscoll class as the difference, it was Leinster's ability to dominate possession that really counted.
Their back-row came out on top at the breakdown and the addition of Healy's carrying would help further in Toulon. Against the champions' star-studded, powerful ensemble they will need to hit the ground running from the start.
In two weeks, they have had to go from playing Europe's worst team in Zebre to their best in Toulon, so Munster was the ideal springboard and a derby win should fuel a good week's training.
Whether it will be enough to storm the Stade Felix Mayol remains to be seen, but another sell-out encounter between these sides with a bit more at stake in less than four weeks' time would be quite a prize.
Then they could cut out the shadow boxing and really go at it – and that would be worth watching.
LEINSTER – R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (Z Kirchner 67), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; M Bent, R Strauss (S Cronin 65), M Ross (J O'Connell 77); M McCarthy (L Cullen 65), D Toner; K McLaughlin (J Murphy 68), S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).
MUNSTER – F Jones (G van den Heever 68); K Earls, C Laulala, D Hurley (JJ Hanrahan 68), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 72), D Varley (capt) (D Casey 58), BJ Botha; D Foley (Donncha O'Callaghan 68), P O'Connell (Donncha O'Callaghan blood, 5-13); CJ Stander, T O'Donnell (J Cronin 55-65), J Coughlan.
REF – A Rolland (IRFU)