Saturday 24 June 2017

Relieved Schmidt acclaims Leinster's defensive 'leaders'

Lifeimi Mafi (left) and Sam Tuitupou combine to block Rob Kearney in the incident which resulted in Mafi being shown the yellow card. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Lifeimi Mafi (left) and Sam Tuitupou combine to block Rob Kearney in the incident which resulted in Mafi being shown the yellow card. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

"BRING on Sexton!" The cry from a lone supporter at the back of the West Stand came after just 15 minutes of Saturday's pulsating derby as Isa Nacewa was preparing to take a kickable penalty.

It had been a rough opening quarter for Nacewa, the out-half failing to make 10 metres with his kick-off for the second week in succession, putting a kick from the hand out on the full and then missing the penalty.

Munster had dominated possession and territory, displaying the surety that had brought four straight victories going into the Aviva showdown while Leinster's efforts were undermined by errors whenever they seemed about to establish a foothold.

The problem for Tony McGahan's side was that they were unable to convert their dominance into a meaningful advantage on the scoreboard and by the time Sexton made his riotously acclaimed appearance on 55 minutes, the score was 6-6 and Leinster had found the belief to kick on for a momentous victory that banished the bad memories of September.

Suddenly, the prospect of facing Racing Metro in their Heineken Cup opener at the RDS on Saturday is not quite as daunting for, as well as the inevitable benefits of victory, Leinster can build on a performance that was several notches up from what had been witnessed previously.

It started with a defensive display that was unrecognisable from their disastrous showing the week previously in Edinburgh. The 'thin blue line' that had cracked for nine tries in their four early outings was deep and meaningful, with Leinster's line speed, communication, kick-chase and all-round aggression back to the levels that served them so well under Kurt McQuilkin's tutelage.

"The first tribute I'd give is to our defence," said coach Joe Schmidt. "There were some real defensive leaders out there. Some guys were getting off the line and really putting pressure on.That kept us in the game and gave us a little bit of momentum in the first half and on the back of that momentum, we started to play a bit of our game and created a few opportunities."

TOIl

Dominic Ryan came into the match under the radar, asked to fill the No 6 jersey that had been worn so spectacularly by Rocky Elsom and Kevin McLaughlin in the recent past. This was not a night for flashy, showboat rugby and against a Munster pack dripping with abrasion and savvy -- as typified by Ryan's opposite number Alan Quinlan -- the 20-year-old knuckled down to 80 minutes of toil.

He is far from the finished article, his inexperience highlighted when the ball squirted out his side of the scrum when Leinster were pushing for a second-half try close to the Munster line. But the fundamentals are there in spades.

"Those are things the young guys will learn from," said Schmidt of that scrum. "I know that Dominic Ryan is absolutely delighted to have survived his first Munster clash."

Devin Toner deserves mention also. The Leinster lineout had been a source of worry going into the match but Toner was able to supply regular, clean possession from the air with Nathan Hines offering steadying support alongside and Richardt Strauss providing the throwing accuracy.

The scrum was once again a source of strength. Beating the Mike Ross drum has been a frustrating exercise these past 12 months but the Fermoy man is finally getting the opportunity to show his worth with consistent game-time and improves with each outing, becoming more prominent in the loose as he goes.

On a damp night in Dublin, there were no shortage of turnovers but the Leinster back-row was muscular at the breakdown and, alongside Ryan, Sean O'Brien and captain Jamie Heaslip had big games.

Heaslip's influence cannot be overstated and this was a compelling case for his candidature as a future Ireland captain. He was a constant rallying figure in the face of a strong performance by the Munster forwards, not least his opposite number Denis Leamy, and the true depth to Heaslip's performance only became evident afterwards.

"He's a 'follow me' type of character. He hurt his shoulder after about 30 minutes, so he's pretty sore and we'll get him checked out," revealed Schmidt. "So I suppose that's an indication ... if he played another 45 on top of that first 30, he's fairly gutsy."

What was also encouraging for Schmidt and Ireland coach Declan Kidney was the improved play of Leinster's back line containing six Irish internationals, particularly after the introduction of Sexton and scrum-half Eoin Reddan.

Nacewa makes no bones about the fact that he is not a natural fit at 10 but he is a fantastic runner and his show-and-go was the best attacking moment of the first half, ended by Lifeimi Mafi's dangerous, swinging forearm smash which brought down Gordon D'Arcy following Nacewa's off-load.

Munster's New Zealand-hewn midfield of Mafi (who picked up a yellow card on 45 minutes) and Sam Tuitupou seemed determined to rough up their Irish counterparts but the Leinster pair took the punishment and there was a seminal second-half moment when Tuitupou popped the ball up for Mafi only to be smashed by O'Driscoll, with D'Arcy in close support.

Sexton's first front-foot ball led to an exquisite move involving a series of wrap-arounds that went through the hands of Reddan, Sexton, Heaslip, O'Driscoll and Ryan. It was one of a number of flashes of the innovative back play that made Schmidt's name in Clermont. The crucial 70th-minute try was well conceived also, a superb off-load by O'Brien out of the back of his hand allowing O'Driscoll to scoot over.

However, while Leinster will inevitably dominate the post-match analysis given their tumultuous start to the season, Munster can take encouragement also. Their forward foundations are well set for next weekend's assignment away to London Irish, when their close-in power can do considerable damage.

Although Jerry Flannery's absence has been far from ideal, Damien Varley continues to thrive at hooker and the pack put in a productive evening's work at the coalface. Tomas O'Leary had a good first half but struggled in the second and will regret not checking with referee Jerome Garces whether there was time for the lineout when kicking to touch in the game's final act.

Ronan O'Gara looked composed on the ball and played the territory game effectively, as well as striking three penalties, while Johne Murphy on the left wing -- like his counterpart Luke Fitzgerald -- was desperate to get involved and did wonderfully well getting back to prevent Fitzgerald crossing after 60 minutes when Rob Kearney appeared to have put him over.

Injury issues could cloud matters after an intensely physical encounter, but both sides can take a good deal out of this match heading into tough European assignments. Five losses in a row against Leinster will sting Munster but that's not the worst motivation to have heading to London, while Schmidt's side have set a standard that they can now strive to maintain.

And from Kidney's point of view, there was a good deal to enthuse over, particularly Sexton's eye-catching cameo. The out-half's kicking may still be affected by the quad muscle injury but the main thing for Leinster and Ireland is that he's back -- with a bang.

LEINSTER -- R Kearney; S Horgan (J Sexton 55), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Nacewa, I Boss (E Reddan 56); C Healy (H van der Merwe 61), R Strauss, M Ross (S Shawe 77); N Hines, D Toner; D Ryan, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt, R Ruddock 77).

MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi, S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez (M Horan 64), D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, D Ryan (M O'Driscoll 65); A Quinlan (D Wallace 55), N Ronan, D Leamy (capt). Yellow Card: L Mafi (45)

REF -- J Garces (France).

Irish Independent

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