Sunday 4 December 2016

Returning stars' rustiness worrying sign ahead of European openers

Published 05/11/2011 | 05:00

Leinster supporters will have excused the interruption.

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After two successive wins for Munster, the latter denying them a unique Irish double last season, normal service has been resumed -- if anything can really be called normal service in this most invigorating of sporting derbies.

Some were already whispering that another five-in-row may beckon. On this evidence, they can whistle.

Sufficient unto the day thereof and all that. The lesser of the two sides committing evil eked out victory in an ugly arm-wrestle where the referee's whistle offered the clearest soundtrack of a disjointed affair, devoid of a try in open play.

Neither side impressed, but then this was as much about rehabilitation after Ireland's World Cup exit than anything else. Anyone expecting running rugby and spills and thrills was in the wrong place.

Leinster, now table-toppers, wore down an embattled Munster without having to add any frills to a simple game-plan, content to see their territorial supremacy rewarded with the referee's whistle and Man of the Match Jonathan Sexton's unerring boot, mercifully error-free on this side of the equator.

Ring rust

Understandably, both sides had intimated during the week that they may need this game ahead of their Heineken Cup opening bows; particularly Joe Schmidt, given that he didn't overload his team with returning World Cup players last week.

The evidence justified both coaches' fears. There was little shape evident in either side's attack, albeit both teams attempted to line up with some sort of decent depth when rare attacking forays presented themselves.

An early try could have initiated a swingeing switch in momentum but Mike Ross butchered an opportunity to shovel the ball wide to Luke Fitzgerald, instead getting white line fever before being tackled into the canal by Lifeimi Mafi.

Despite some flashes in midfield, sloppiness abounded and forward passes and fumbles were the order of the day; little wonder it developed into a penalty-fest from the off. Improved cohesion from both sides will be required next week.

Back-row

Most pundits and supporters in the bars en route to Lansdowne Road last evening would have alighted upon the back-row as a source of genuine optimism for Leinster. Such a scenario was played out quite convincingly.

Munster blindside Donnacha Ryan, who had an appalling evening beneath the restarts and whose concession of two penalties arguably should have led to an earlier yellow card for his side, struggled all night.

Leinster dominated, even though Munster flooded the breakdown in the early stages. At times, the area was a wasteland of flailing bodies, particularly those slaloming beyond the ball.

Despite the best efforts of French referee Pascal Gauzere, who repeatedly upheld the new IRB directive of zero tolerance for those players loitering on the wrong side, the breakdown was still a mess.

Botha worth the money

Munster seemed to have the push on Leinster from the opening scrum, but the French referee continued the trend of most international whistlers by chickening out of the correct calls on more than one occasion.

South African BJ Botha, on this evidence already looking like a shrewd investment for Munster, seemed to get the turn on Cian Healy, who prefers to have a tight-head that presents a more obvious target.

Early on, he twisted Leinster in their territory, which allowed Munster to take out a back-rower and offer Mafi the chance to charge; sadly they spurned so much territory that they weren't able to repeat the trick.

Closer to their own line, Munster were penalised on that side by the referee for Botha boring in, albeit Ross was arguably winning his battle with Wian du Preez.

Also, Munster were also pinged for not binding properly.

Kicking king

After his woeful time with place-kicking in the World Cup, when the worries about the stationary ball affected his overall performance, Sexton returned to the comfortable bosom of the Leinster jersey and immediately rediscovered his mojo.

A perfect haul of seven successful kicks ensured that Leinster secured a winning position by the hour mark of a desperately disappointing game when there was little opportunity for his side to build a platform to play any real rugby.

That put the pressure on his Irish rival Ronan O'Gara. For much of the match, the veteran responded in kind.

And so developed the fascinating sideshow to what was essentially a grim battle of trench warfare -- who would blink first? Ultimately, it was the veteran. The young gunslinger continued unbowed.

O'Gara's first missed penalty effort in an admittedly gripping final quarter, despite Munster's gaping deficit, seemed to bid farewell to the last meaningful opportunity his side had of snatching an unworthy victory.

Munster under pressure

That's three defeats in four for the Reds. Munster can live with this result -- but not with a repeat when Northampton come to town next weekend.

Tony McGahan presided over the ignominy of becoming the first coach in this century not to lead a Munster side into the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup -- the only competition that matters to their supporters, And, in truth, their players.

Their need is greater than Leinster's next week; was there enough in this performance to suggest that they have it in them to see off a resurgent Northampton side who are still brimming with anger at last May's final defeat?

Only in flashes. Their set-piece will be the launch pad but the pedestrian back-line will rue the loss of Keith Earls.

Irish Independent

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