Munster galvanise Irish hopes
Munster 19 Leinster 9
NOT a bad way to round off a long, tiring but, ultimately, extremely positive season for Irish rugby.
Irish provinces won both the Magners League and Heineken Cup -- throw in Ulster's resurgence plus Connacht making the elite European competition for the first time and the 2010/11 season must be marked down as a successful campaign.
When you consider that Ireland had the ability to win the Six Nations, were it not for a touch of self-doubt against France and an inexcusable lapse of officialdom in Wales, the signs are extremely encouraging ahead of the World Cup, now just over three months away.
While Leinster's stunning form this season points toward Joe Schmidt's side providing the backbone for Ireland's New Zealand 2011 assault, Munster still have a major part to play and both sets of players now have silverware to bolster their build-up efforts.
Leinster's attempt to land an unprecedented double was unquestionably affected by the emotional and physical toil of landing the Heineken Cup in remarkable circumstances the previous weekend, but that should not detract from Munster's achievement.
Had they lost, Munster's season would have been written off as one to forget, but earning reward for a magnificently consistent Magners League campaign now serves as an adrenalin boost for a side in a period of transition.
Victory will keep the merchandising tills ticking over and youngsters in Kerry, Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick and Clare dreaming of wearing the red jersey, with new heroes like Conor Murray, Danny Barnes and Felix Jones to fire their aspirations. It was a compelling tussle, in front of a packed and vociferous Thomond Park, banishing the memories of lacklustre semi-finals at the same venue and in the RDS.
And, as Schmidt acknowledged afterwards, Munster needed this result more than Leinster wanted it, as evidenced by the visitors being kept tryless, even when Munster were reduced to 14 men following the sin-binning of Donncha O'Callaghan after 48 minutes.
That occurred during the game's critical period when Leinster, who went in at the break only 7-3 in arrears despite Munster's overwhelming dominance of possession, attempted to replicate their second-half tour de force against Northampton with a five-minute, 24-phase offensive.
That they were forced to settle for three points from the boot of sole scorer Jonathan Sexton spoke volumes for the determination and doggedness of the home defence, in which man of the match David Wallace, James Coughlan and Murray were outstanding.
Munster had not scored a try in this fixture for six matches dating back to April 2009 but when Doug Howlett finished off excellent work by Munster's up-the-middle merchants and Lifeimi Mafi's intelligent running after 11 minutes, any early doubts were eradicated.
Their two other tries came at critical junctures, Ronan O'Gara's exquisite cross-field kick allowing Keith Earls to re-emphasise his finishing ability after 66 minutes followed by the self-affirmation of a penalty try from the scrum with a minute to go.
At that point, Munster were only 12-9 ahead and captain Paul O'Connell's decision to opt for the scrum rather than take the easy six-point lead was superbly reinforced when the Munster eight walked through their opponents.
True, Leinster had substituted their starting front-row of Heinke van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross at that point but, after two seasons of scrummaging uncertainty, this was the perfect way for Munster to sign off their season.
The Ospreys' dismantling of the Munster scrum in December proved the difference between pool qualification and European ignominy and, after restoring their set-piece security against the Welsh in the semi-final, this was further evidence of the good work being done by scrum coach Paul McCarthy.
Munster were lower, tighter and more focused at scrum time than they have been for the past few seasons and, allied to a worthy 80-minute overall contribution, the penalty try proved that John Hayes, at 37, is still part of Ireland's World Cup equation as well as underlining hooker Mike Sherry's potential.
The other World Cup beneficiaries on Saturday were Murray, Coughlan and Donnacha Ryan who now have to be considered live contenders for a place in New Zealand and should have guaranteed August auditions in the warm-up matches.
Leinster's go-to men in Cardiff -- Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Strauss and Sean O'Brien -- were unable to exert the same sort of influence a week later but Fergus McFadden and Shane Jennings, neither of whom started against Northampton, had productive evenings.
As did Brian O'Driscoll, who was the spark for Leinster's second-half resurgence with a wonderful break and behind-the-back link that was the game's outstanding individual attacking play. Ireland's captain ended another excellent season on a high, at one point shrugging off medical attention for a heavy hit to throw in a tackle off the ground as Munster attempted to exploit a vulnerable blind side.
Even though the game was gone after the penalty try, Leinster dug deep for a final push and were unlucky to be denied a try from substitute Kevin McLaughlin when the TMO deemed the flanker had failed to ground the ball.
If O'Driscoll was good for Leinster, Munster's totems Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara (who took some fearful punishment) were equally effective, reinforcing the upbeat vibes looking ahead to September.
"I think today was a very good thing for Irish rugby," said O'Connell. "Leinster and Munster have always made each other better, and we have made the Irish team better by driving on standards.
"Both sides have a lot of leadership, and no little skill. People talk about this being a good era for Ireland, and when you look at some of the young players coming through, you would be very confident for the future.
"Whenever we have been successful with Ireland we have taken one game at a time. Think back to 2009 (Grand Slam), we just took one game at a time.
"If we stick with that attitude going into the World Cup, anything can happen."
The summer rest is welcome, and well earned, but Saturday whets the appetite for the road ahead.
MUNSTER -- F Jones (P Warwick 75); D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray; M Horan (W Du Preez 53), D Varley (M Sherry 59), J Hayes; D O'Callaghan (D Leamy 68), P O'Connell capt; D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (P O'Donohoe 77); H van der Merwe (C Healy 59), R Strauss (A Dundon 70), M Ross (S Wright 58), L Cullen (capt), N Hines, S O'Brien (K McLaughlin 59), S Jennings, J Heaslip.
REF -- N Owens (Wales).