Sunday 19 August 2018

Blues ready to 'finish the job'

Leinster 16 Munster 15

Jack Conan receives an offload from Leinster teammate James Lowe on his way to scoring his side's first. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jack Conan receives an offload from Leinster teammate James Lowe on his way to scoring his side's first. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When the dust finally settles on this remarkable season, Leinster will reserve a special place in the memory for this Guinness PRO14 win.

They have had bigger, prettier, more impressive victories, but they must have come away from the RDS feeling invincible after Munster threw the kitchen sink at them and still came up short.

The Reds left a famous victory behind them. Another slow start handed the opposition an advantage, their pack brought them back into it, but their poor passing and terrible discipline let them down.

Still, they finished the game a point down and in possession when Max Deegan - who last week was playing in the British and Irish Cup and had only just come on to the pitch - performed the game-winning duties for his team as he won a breakdown penalty.

Jack Conan, second from right, celebrates with his Leinster team-mates, from left, James Lowe, Jordi Murphy, Devin Toner and Luke McGrath after scoring the opening try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jack Conan, second from right, celebrates with his Leinster team-mates, from left, James Lowe, Jordi Murphy, Devin Toner and Luke McGrath after scoring the opening try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

That summed it up for the Blues, who were understandably below their best a week after winning the Champions Cup in bruising fashion.

Their depth was tested, but the next men in performed brilliantly.

As well as losing Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Dan Leavy and Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa went off at half-time - and yet the serial winners refused to succumb.

Determination

Most of them have a Grand Slam and a European medal in the bag and it would be easy for them to be satisfied with that, but this group of players has a fearsome determination and simply refuses to give in.

"It is a very ambitious group," Leo Cullen said of his squad's motivation.

Isa Nacewa says farewell to the RDS. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa says farewell to the RDS. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"The realisation that a lot of guys worked to get us into this position and didn't get the chance to play in this game; some players finishing up and wanting to give them a good send off, Isa in particular and Jordi (Murphy). You saw the reactions the players had, in terms of him and lifting the trophy (in Bilbao).

"It means a huge amount to the group because this group is never going to be the same again.

"They want to finish the season well. I'm sure Scarlets will be saying the same thing.

"Groups just break up. That's just the reality of life in a professional team. You gear up for a season, everything is thrown into that season. It is just about finishing the job for us now, it is another week. All the things we've tried to do, we've got to that situation now.

"It's been an amazing year. It's come off the back of a lot of disappointment over the last couple of seasons. We've got ourselves back in the position again. That's the thing. It's finish the job now.

"Everyone wants to work hard for another week to give people the ideal send-off.

Zebo: Munster’s most dangerous attacker. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Zebo: Munster’s most dangerous attacker. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"Sport is never really the perfect story, is it? But, we would ideally like to give people the perfect send-off."

James Lowe was the Man of the Match as he put any disappointment at missing out on the Bilbao final to one side to play a leading role in this win.

And he revealed that the motivation for the dressing-room is to deliver a fitting farewell to a club legend who retires after next week's game.

"Man, no team has ever done the double; gone and won Europe and then their provincial competition, so it's something we've talked about," he said.

"There's a very special group of men in that changing-room, unfortunately probably one of Leinster's best is going to leave us so the stars are aligned; his last game at the RDS, last game at the Aviva.

"Everything is to play for.

Munster's Dave Kilcoyne comes up against Leinster's Tadhg Furlong during the Guinness Pro14, Semi Final. Photo: Donall Farmer/PA
Munster's Dave Kilcoyne comes up against Leinster's Tadhg Furlong during the Guinness Pro14, Semi Final. Photo: Donall Farmer/PA

"It's special here at the moment, we've talked about things that we can try to connect back to.

"Rugby is bigger than the 80 minutes that you play on Saturday, there's a lot of spokes in the wheel that makes us the team that we need to be.

"Everyone wants to be Isa, his name gets shouted every time he runs out on to that field. If you want to do it for anyone, you want to do it for him.

"He's our culture at the moment, he's our talisman. I mean, he's got one leg at the moment and he still trains every week, still turns up. He doesn't have to play week-in, week-out, but when he does play he's huge.

"He's the boss. He's pretty unlucky not to be an All Black, eh? Leinster is pretty lucky to have had him for so long. He retired and came back, coached and then they got two more years out of him, so he's a god amongst men."

They hope that Nacewa can make it back for next week's final against an impressive Scarlets side, but they also have Sexton, Leavy and Kearney to return to the fold.

After a week disrupted by the desire to mark the Champions Cup win with deserved celebrations and the injury issues, Cullen could be satisfied that he struck the right balance in selection.

Indeed, when his team scored a superb eighth-minute try constructed almost entirely from players who didn't start in Bilbao, the coach was entitled to give himself a pat on the back.

Lowe was at the forefront of Jack Conan's try, but as the first-half went on the initial energy gave way to Munster's power and control and Leinster could be thankful that the visitors' inaccuracy let them off the hook.

In total, 12 Munster passes either went forward, to deck or to an opponent and the error count sucked the life out of their challenge.

Their discipline didn't help; Jean Kleyn got himself sin-binned for a reckless lunge that connected with a prone Ross Byrne's head just as his team were turning the screw.

Even down to 14, the Reds came out of the second-half blocks on a mission and Keith Earls' try brought them to within two points, but a silly concession from Ian Keatley allowed Byrne extend the lead to five.

Control

Both teams missed opportunities to take control, but the big moment came with 12 minutes to go when, still five points down, Peter O'Mahony opted to go to the corner with a kickable penalty. James Ryan spoiled the chance to set a maul and, after a couple of phases, James Tracy forced a penalty brilliantly.

Instead, it was Leinster who extended their lead through a Joey Carbery penalty - earned by an increasingly dominant scrum - and when Gerbrandt Grobler pulled back a try it was too late.

The final minute saw Munster try to go the length, but Deegan intervened to prolong the Reds' wait for a trophy.

"Leinster are the trend-setters in Europe, obviously they're the team to beat," Johann van Graan said.

"It's very disappointing, there's nothing bittersweet in this, it's only bitter. You've got to take it on the chin and move on."

His focus will soon switch to pre-season, but for Leinster there is another trophy to be won against an opponent they know well having lost last year's PRO14 semi-final to them at home, but reversed that result emphatically in the Champions Cup last month.

One more win will do the trick for a team who have forgotten how to lose.

Leinster - J Carbery; J Larmour, G Ringrose, I Nacewa (capt) (R O'Loughlin h-t), J Lowe; R Byrne (B Daly 37-40), L McGrath (N McCarthy 78); J McGrath (C Healy 47), S Cronin (J Tracy 56), T Furlong (A Porter56); D Toner, J Ryan; R Ruddock (S Fardy 63), J Murphy (M Deegan 80), J Conan.

Munster - S Zebo; A Conway, S Arnold (D Sweetnam 69), R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan (I Keatley h-t), C Murray; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 53), R Marshall (N Scannell 59), J Ryan (C Parker 74); J Kleyn, B Holland (G Grobler 49); P O'Mahony (capt), J O'Donoghue (R Copeland 11), CJ Stander.

Ref - S Berry (South Africa)

Irish Independent

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