Munster lay down Euro marker with return to old values
Munster 19 Leinster 15
THIS derby cocktail had all the qualities of a Harvey Wallbanger – it was invigorating, highly intoxicating and thoroughly enjoyable but also bitter-sweet for one of the combatants.
Thomond Park – well below capacity, with numerous sections of empty seats – rocked to the familiar triumphant chants of "Munster, Munster" and justifiably so. This was a performance to savour for those clad in red uniforms: aggressive, persistent, prolific.
But the win yielded a return that was of greater psychological than tangible value.
Prior to Saturday night's collision, Munster's start to the season had returned three victories from four games but this was the first true test of their credentials and, after Thomond had crackled and throbbed for 80 minutes, their report card made for mostly positive reading.
That a relatively poor Leinster were still within striking distance at the end of a game when their front-row, indeed entire pack, had been convincingly beaten up is testament to their inherent quality.
They will, as coach Matt O'Connor suggested afterwards, take the positives from that – "If you're looking at bigger picture stuff, it's not the end of the world. We'll dust ourselves off and make sure we're better next Saturday," he said – as they look ahead to the start of their Heineken Cup campaign.
The bitter tang that lingered on Leinster's tastebuds on Saturday had little to do with the final result – underneath the pantomime references by O'Connor to Romain Poite's officiating was the acknowledgement that his side were second best on the night.
Rather, it was rooted in the knowledge that key players did not produce the returns needed and Leinster are facing into a tough Heineken Cup tie when they are likely to be without spiritual leader Brian O'Driscoll.
On top of that Lote Tuqiri is facing another spell on the treatment table, joining Jordi Murphy and Shane Jennings, while mystery still surrounds the injury that has sidelined Richardt Strauss.
"We're still awaiting medical opinion on Richardt's injury," was all O'Connor would say about the plight of his hooker.
Munster will draw inspiration from Saturday's achievement. This was their first win over Leinster since the 2011 Celtic League final and the ferocity of their forward play, combined with the growing assurance of Ian Keatley, will give them much confidence.
Their eight forwards were outstanding. This was reflected in their dominance at scrum time. Cian Healy was regularly turned inside out by Stephen Archer and, with Dave Kilcoyne getting the better of Mike Ross on the far side, Leinster's set-piece platform was in disarray.
Munster were in determined mood and their commitment to traditional values was exemplified by the outstanding contribution at the base of the scrum by James Coughlan.
The No 8 was so impressive in controlling the ball, guiding the Munster pack and instinctively knowing when to pick-and-go or let his scrum-half tidy things up after successful drives, that it was astonishing that he was the only uncapped player among the 16 forwards who started the contest.
That status will surely be altered before too long by Joe Schmidt and his forwards coach John Plumtree – both were in Thomond Park and must have been hugely impressed by his work at scrum-time and at the breakdown.
It was also a big night for Keatley. The out-half won the battle of the No 10s convincingly, with the highlight of his performance a sumptuous cross-kick to Keith Earls for the only try of the game eight minutes before the interval.
Keatley judged the trajectory to perfection. He also converted to add to his four penalties for a 14-point individual haul. It was a powerful response to being surprisingly overlooked for the enlarged Ireland squad brought into camp a fortnight ago by Schmidt.
"I have been impressed with Ian every time he has worn the jersey. If he keeps performing they won't be able to keep him out," said Rob Penney. "Even though he wasn't in the initial squad, the message has been given that if you perform well you can force your way in."
Penney was equally generous in his praise for Keatley's half-back partner Duncan Williams. The scrum-half endured a tough time last season when he was, according to Penney, unfairly targeted and his displays derided by some.
The benefits of a first ever full and injury-free pre-season have been evident in Williams' strong start to the season and Penney was delighted with his contribution.
"That was the biggest game in Duncan's career and to deliver a performance like that was a credit to the guy's fortitude," said the Munster coach.
Penney's contentment with the fare on the field will be tempered by the sobering reality that the game didn't sell out. Traditionally this derby is one guaranteed to provide a badly needed boost to the coffers.
Officially the number of tickets sold was a little over 20,000. There were far fewer than that in attendance, with the turnout likely to cause furrowed brows at boardroom level.
Leinster's worries are more immediate as they prepare for a searching examination of their European credentials away to an Ospreys side who will be smarting after losing at home to Ulster on Friday.
O'Driscoll is rated as no better than "50-50" for the trip to Liberty Stadium and there was a distinct lack of punch behind the scrum in his absence.
Tuqiri did show the ability to exploit a gap when he broke from inside his own '22' in the 73rd minute but he is also very doubtful after suffering another hamstring strain.
Matt O'Connor did his utmost to put forward a positive front – "we created enough opportunities to win the game. We just didn't take them" – but, Tuqiri's break aside, it's hard to pin-point what those specific opportunities were.
Munster also have some injury concerns. Peter O'Mahony didn't reappear for the second half after he took a knee to the head a couple of minutes before the break but their woes are few compared to Leinster's.
Not only must O'Connor compensate for the probable unavailability of O'Driscoll and Tuqiri, he must also make some big selection calls.
Not least of these will be his choice of out-half where he must decide between Madigan and the impressive Jimmy Gopperth, while the besting of their front-row is a cause for concern.
MUNSTER – F Jones (D Hurley 68); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams (C Murray 49); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 55), M Sherry (D Varley 74), S Archer (BJ Botha 68); D Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (CJ Stander h-t), N Ronan (D O'Callaghan 68), J Coughlan.
LEINSTER – R Kearney; F McFadden (L Fitzgerald 55), L Tuqiri (J Gopperth 74), G D'Arcy, D Kearney; I Madigan, E Reddan (I Boss 55); C Healy (J McGrath 63), S Cronin (A Dundon 69), M Ross (M Moore 74); M McCarthy, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien (D Ryan 64), J Heaslip.
REF – R Poite (FFR)