Munster come up just short at the RDS as Leinster keep double dream alive after dogged display
Leinster survived a late Munster push and will have the chance to complete a unique double at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday thanks to a second gritty win in the space of a week.
Munster asked the newly crowned European champions all sorts of questions at a packed RDS, but ultimately their skills and discipline let them down over an enthralling 80 minutes.
It was a mighty effort from both sides and for the second successive week the Blues found themselves defending a narrow lead at the death. Once again, they survived.
When Jack Conan touched down in the 8th minute it was difficult to envisage it being his side’s only try in the game but Leinster’s early attacking freedom gave way to a hard-working effort and they had a scrum that worked itself from early difficulties in to a dominant position for keeping them in the game, as Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery kicked them home.
They will face the Scarlets in the final and hope to welcome Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy back for a Champions Cup semi-final rematch.
The loss means Munster’s trophy drought stretches into its eighth season and they will be bitterly disappointed at their inability to exploit Leinster’s vulnerability as they arrived much-changed from the team that had beaten Racing 92 last week.
Despite their extra preparation time, the Reds made more mistakes than the home team and were left to rue a series of loose passes in promising positions.
Jean Kleyn got himself sin-binned at a critical juncture before half-time after his team had gotten on top and, try as they might, they just couldn’t reel Leinster in despite Gerbrandt Grobler’s late try and a helter skelter finish that had hearts in mouths on both sides of the divide.
Any fear that Leinster might have a European hangover was quickly dispelled as they started fast and went ahead within eight minutes thanks to a couple of magic moments from James Lowe.
After some positive early exchanges, a superb Leinster counter-ruck saw Jordi Murphy come up with the ball and – after the departing flanker made another big carry – they shifted the ball wide to Lowe who steamrolled Simon Zebo before off-loading to Isa Nacewa who was tackled by a covering defender.
Rhys Ruddock trucked it up before deft hands from Jack McGrath put Lowe through a big gap on the Munster fringe and he fed Jack Conan to score.
The visitors then suffered a blow when Jack O’Donoghue was forced off with a serious-looking injury and he was replaced by Robin Copeland.
They attempted to hit back with a neatly worked first-phase move, but Keith Earls’ long pass to Andrew Conway drifted forward.
JJ Hanrahan made an important intervention to track down Jordan Larmour in space and he then got this side up and running with a penalty after Leinster drifted offside as Munster pressed.
Ross Byrne was handed a chance to level from 41m almost instantly as Billy Holland failed to roll away after a clever series of attacks and the out-half made no mistake.
Munster’s attempt to hit back was undone when Copeland knocked on and Conor Murray played the ball offside, which handed Leinster another attacking platform and they almost made the most of it as Garry Ringrose, Byrne and Larmour combined to put Lowe into space, but Sammy Arnold made a superb covering tackle to deny the winger.
Back came Munster, who attacked off a scrum in their own ’22, with Copeland putting Murray into space before Conway made gains. They shifted possession left where Simon Zebo had numbers, but he opted to drift across before throwing a poor pass to Earls who was covered and the chance passed.
Referee Stuart Berry was playing advantage, but Hanrahan was off target.
Slowly, Munster’s forward pack was gaining control. They had the edge at the scrum and, when their maul marched 25m they could sense they had the ascendancy.
After a couple of chances went a-begging through poor hands, the Reds went to their pack and were close to scoring – but foul play from Jean Kleyn proved their undoing as the second-row hurled himself at a prone Byrne and connected with the out-half’s head.
Berry missed it but when CJ Stander was held up over the line, he reviewed it on the big screen and, in conjunction with Television Match Official Neil Paterson, sent his fellow South African to the sin-bin. He was lucky it wasn’t a harsher sanction.
Leinster made it to half-time seven points up, but two quick turnovers – the second from Robin Copeland - in the moments after half-time put the visitors in position and this time their skills held up as Zebo put Earls away in the corner and he finished brilliantly.
A tough first-half saw Isa Nacewa and Hanrahan replaced and Munster sub Ian Keatley pushed a tough conversion wide.
After all their hard work, Munster handed Byrne – back after a HIA – a simple chance to extend Leinster’s lead to five points when they didn’t retreat off a kick but when Kleyn returned his team were in a better place than they had been when he went off.
Zebo got caught in possession by Ringrose as he chased his own kick and the Munster full-back was penalised for holding on.
Rather than kick the points, Byrne went to the corner but the Munster forwards disrupted brilliantly and turned the maul over.
Having been on the receiving end during the first-half, Leinster’s scrum hit back by winning a penalty of their own and this time Byrne went to the posts but missed narrowly.
Back came Munster as O’Mahony won the drop out and Joey Carbery did brilliantly to beat Zebo to his own chip and the over-exuberant ruckers in red let the pinned-back hosts off the hook.
That was compounded by an uncharacteristic Earls knock-on but, when Leinster’s pack again got the nudge and forced a penalty, Carbery couldn’t nail a difficult kick.
Leinster were visibly tiring; Lowe knocked-on in contact after a neat Byrne pass sent Ringrose through a big gap in the Munster midfield, a Ringrose knock on allowed Munster to move into their half and when Cian Healy played Murray, the scrum-half kicked to the corner.
With 11 minutes remaining, it felt like a defining moment and James Ryan got up in front of his opposite man and did just enough to prevent a maul. The ball still came back on Munster’s side, but they couldn’t penetrate and James Tracy brilliantly forced a ruck penalty with a strong poach.
An increasingly desperate Munster began to fold, Zebo threw a forward pass on the edge of his own ’22 and the scrum once again came down.
This time, Carbery made it an eight-point game from the kicking tee and with less than four minutes remaining it looked a bridge too far for the away team.
They dared not give up and when Gerbrandt Grobler forced his way over from close range and Keatley converted, they had 57 seconds to win it.
It was a valiant effort, Zebo broke out of his own ’22 and released Earls before a stretched Leinster defence clung and were forced back into their own half.
With tired bodies everywhere, Max Deegan – who had come on after the Grobler score – got himself in on the ball and forced the penalty that settled a cracking contest.
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)