Tuesday 20 March 2018

Munster dig deep to secure title

JOHN O'BRIEN at Thomond Park

IT was just a step too far for Leinster. Yesterday they travelled south with the chance to bookend an extraordinary season by claiming a unique League-Cup double at the home of their fiercest rivals, but it proved too big an ask. That scenario presented too appalling a vista for Munster to stomach and they dug deep within themselves to carve out a breathless 19-9 victory.

In a season jam-packed with epic contests, this one didn't fail to deliver. Surely in the history of Irish sport, a month's rest will never have been so dutifully earned by so many. It feels like an age since the first ball was kicked in anger last autumn and, here they were with the summer beckoning, still running their legs into stumps, summoning every last ounce of energy from exhausted bodies, laying them on the line for every challenge.

You have to go back a decade or more, probably, for the last time Munster would have been considered underdogs in their own home and they would have savoured the billing. Just when Leinster had absorbed Munster's meatiest blows and looked to be cranking up through the gears, their southern rivals found a bit more gas and asked a few more searching questions. Ultimately, it was Leinster who wilted, Munster claiming the title they surely felt their season merited.

In the end it wasn't glib to suggest Irish rugby was the winner. Leinster lost nothing in defeat and it was eminently forgiveable that they fell short given their exertions last week and celebrations that had slipped into Monday.

Irish coach Declan Kidney would have watched from the stands, hugely encouraged by what he witnessed. The old warrior David Wallace was man of the match and nobody on the pitch let his side down or diminished his chances of making the plane for New Zealand.

A crowd of 25,822 lapped it up. It was tight and tense nearly to the end. Munster had owned most of the first half but had only Doug Howlett's 11th-minute touchdown to show for it. It didn't seem nearly enough. Jonathan Sexton produced Leinster's first points with a 28th-minute penalty and in a match that had plenty of needle -- a Marcus Horan body-check on Brian O'Driscoll replied to in kind with one on Horan from Nathan Hines -- a four-point deficit looked inviting when you considered the scenario a week ago in Cardiff.

They raised the tempo after the restart and two Sexton penalties had them in front. But Munster would not be denied. A typical piece of class from Ronan O'Gara picked out Keith Earls with a cross-field kick on the left and Earls skipped over for the critical try. They had Leinster on the ropes then and made sure of victory when relentless pressure forced Nigel Owens to award a penalty try. Try as they might, Leinster had no comeback from that point. There was to be no second miracle.

See Page 6

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