Monday 19 March 2018

Leinster withstand ferocious Munster fightback

Leinster 30 Munster 21

Brian O'Driscoll breaks the tackle of Keith Earls on his way to scoring a try
Brian O'Driscoll breaks the tackle of Keith Earls on his way to scoring a try
Leinster's John Cooney kicks ahead during a previous clash with Munster at the RDS

Brendan Fanning at Lansdowne Road

Having saddled themselves with the unwanted tag of league leaders in tries conceded, Leinster for a while looked like they might make serious headway in the other direction at Lansdowne Road last night. In the end they managed one more than they conceded, 3-2, and were happy enough to win, never mind miss out on the bonus.

The bad news is that their list of injured has grown even longer. Four players had to leave early from what was an entertaining contest for the huge crowd of 46,280 who fetched up on a perfect night for rugby. Kevin McLaughlin, Isa Nacewa, Brian O'Driscoll and Andrew Conway all took knocks. Conway's exit was via a stretcher, with a stinger, while McLaughlin will need a scan on a hyper-extended elbow, Nacewa is in trouble with a haematoma, and O'Driscoll sprained his ankle.

It remains to be seen who is fit for the opening defence of their Heineken Cup title, against Exeter in the RDS on Saturday, but as far as last night was concerned they were stuck with a back three of replacement scrumhalf John Cooney, outhalf Ian Madigan (in fairness he was selected at fullback) and Fionn Carr, who surely would have started if he hadn't missed a bad tackle in the five-try defeat in Galway last weekend.

Smelling the weakness in their opponents, Munster -- who came through the game in much better shape physically -- chased the home team down like men possessed. On 53 minutes they looked like they would be beaten out the gate when an outstanding try from O'Driscoll, converted from the touchline by the excellent Jonny Sexton, put Leinster 30-14 ahead.

Going down the final straight, however, it was a mad scramble. Conor Murray spread a bit of panic in the home crowd when, from a couple of metres out, he took advantage of empty corridor to dot the ball down. Replacement Ian Keatley nailed the conversion with a great kick, and Munster were on the charge. A couple of minutes later they looked on the verge of making it a one-point game.

Keith Earls was held up inches short, and when the ball squirted up referee Leighton Hodges said it was forward and Leinster escaped. Earls made another great burst heading into overtime, but by then the chances of two scores were non-existent.

When the game wasn't stopped for injuries it moved along at a cracking pace, helped by the service of man of the match Eoin Reddan -- his contribution to O'Driscoll's try was first class -- and, in the subtext of showing form for Ireland, Richardt Strauss made a compelling case. He looked like the player who took Leinster by storm when he arrived here three years ago. He did well to finger-tip-score the opening try, after just four minutes, but way better again in keeping the ball alive for the second, for Madigan.

"Yeah I thought he was really good," Joe Schmidt said. "There was one pinball effort where he took a ball behind him and was hit by two guys -- [Casey] Laulala was one of them, who tends not to leave a lot behind when he hits -- and ricocheted away in the lead-up to scoring [Madigan's try]. I thought he was very good."

It remains to be seen if Declan Kidney thinks the same. The Ireland coach will have been pleased with the form of Earls, and Simon Zebo, but it was hard for Munster to get a secure platform given the damage Mike Ross was doing to their scrum. Dave Kilcoyne, his opposite number, is a willing and aggressive ball carrier, but as you would expect he spent more time learning than lecturing in the tight. The ref did him for two penalties in a row -- one hit and one miss for Sexton -- and you felt for him.

Early on Munster looked like they had plenty to offer, with Peter O'Mahony responding within a couple of minutes of Strauss's try. By half-time Leinster had slipped out to 20-14. Ronan O'Gara kept Munster in touch with three penalties but then hit the post with a handy one early in the new half.

Straight from there, Leinster got motoring and hit their opponents with 10 points in four minutes -- first Sexton goaled from the touchline, and then O'Driscoll finished brilliantly after Fergus McFadden laid the groundwork through the middle, riding O'Gara's tackle, before great hands from Reddan kept it all going.

Rob Penney will be delighted with the way his team stuck to the task, but they badly need to get all their big players fit if their game is going to work. Schmidt, while wondering why so much trauma has landed at his door, will be glad that his team can generate this sort of momentum with so many players missing.

Scorers -- Leinster: R Strauss, I Madigan, B O'Driscoll try each; J Sexton 3 pens, 3 cons; Munster: P O'Mahony, C Murray try each; R O'Gara 3 pens; I Keatley con.

Leinster: I Madigan; A Conway (J Cooney 65), B O'Driscoll (N Reid 64), F McFadden, I Nacewa (F Carr 55); J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss (S Cronin 57), M Ross (J Hagan 65), D Browne (T Denton 73), D Toner, K McLaughlin (J Murphy 12), J Heaslip (capt), S Jennings.

Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo (J Downey 65); R O'Gara (I Keatley 60),C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 57), M Sherry (D Varley 51 yc 54-64), BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan (B Holland 49), D Ryan, Dave O'Callaghan (P Butler 70), P O'Mahony, S Dougall.

Referee: L Hodges (Wales)

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