Sexton inspires Leinster to grind out precious victory
Leinster 16 Munster 13
When these teams last met - over Christmas - the hangover from the World Cup was still in full fog mode, with not many people able to look ahead. Fast forward to last night in the Aviva, and a healthy crowd of 43,108 turned up in somewhat different circumstances. We're in the middle of an intriguing run-in to the Pro12, and the unique prospect of all four Irish teams getting through on merit to the Champions Cup is an appealing one.
To that end Munster's need was greater on a grey evening where thankfully the rain, which had drizzled down for most of the day, shifted elsewhere. It left us with a fast track and two teams looking to play ball. At its end Munster were still in the top six, but with Edinburgh only a point behind, they could do with Leinster putting the Scots away in a fortnight when they meet in the RDS.
As ever in these fixtures though, first you have to wait until the adrenaline levels have subsided a bit and the field is harder to cover. It was just about worth the wait. And the adrenaline was back up to fever pitch in the last couple of minutes with Munster parked within 10 metres of the Leinster line.
That bit of territory had come courtesy of Cian Healy who lasted only eight minutes when coming off the bench for Jack McGrath. He was binned, deservedly, for a dangerous tackle on Dave Kilcoyne. Referee Ian Davies had a good game but he might have looked at a very similar looking tackle by Niall Scannell in the first half on Rhys Ruddock, who somehow did not win the man of the match award which went to Johnny Sexton - perhaps down to the outhalf being the winners' sole points scorer. Munster's Dave O'Callaghan was in the same bracket as Ruddock.
"It was pretty exhausting sitting in the (coaches' box)," Leo Cullen said afterwards. "We were a bit, I suppose, lucky with the gap that Munster had to go for a win. There wasn't a whole lot between the teams. We were always going to be a bit stretched when we were down to 14 men."
The quality of their defence in that period was top notch, and it would have been a sickener for them to lose at that point. The result puts them on top of the table, ahead of Connacht on points' difference. It would be a surprise if they don't do Munster a favour next time out.
Ideally Anthony Foley's side would have taken a big step here themselves, but the losing bonus is what's keeping them ahead of Edinburgh. On another day that might be a two points gap had Munster opted to go for a draw instead of the win when they were getting a run on penalties.
"It's disappointing," Foley said afterwards. "I thought we'd done enough to win the game."
They were very much in the hunt throughout the match, and only surrendered a hard earned 6-3 lead at the end of the period when Sexton scored after Robin Copeland had been binned. They reacted well to the setback though.
"Yeah they came out firing," Cullen said. "They looked like a different team, a team that was desperate so we did well to come back into it. A lot of credit to them tough - they put us under a lot of pressure." The biggest call pre-match had been the selection of Johnny Holland ahead of Ian Keatley. And on his first start in an interpro - he got three minutes off the bench against Connacht two seasons ago - the 24 year old did pretty well. Critically, he looked like he enjoyed it. Not least the try, complete with excellent conversion, on 48 minutes which turned the half time score of 10-6 to Leinster into a 13-10 lead for the away side.
Leinster leveled it through Sexton on 50 minutes though, and then he pushed them further ahead after Keatley, who was hardly on the filed a minute, had a tricky enough shot on goal, which he missed. Even with 16 minutes to play after Sexton's penalty the home team looked like they had enough to close it out. That changed dramatically with Healy's departure, but they got away with it.
Scorers - Leinster: Sexton try, 3 pens, con; Munster: Holland try, 2 pens, con.
Leinster: Z Kirchner (J McGrath 79); I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, B Te'o, D Kearney (F McFadden 69); J Sexton (I Madigan 77), E Reddan (L McGrath 69); J McGrath (C Healy 69; yc 77), S Cronin (R Strauss 51), T Furlong (M Ross 65), D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 65), R Ruddock, J Heaslip, J Murphy (J van der Flier 51)
Munster: S Zebo; A Conway (D Sweetnam 76), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland (I Keatley 57), C Murray; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 48), N Scannell (M Sherry 48), S Archer (J Ryan 74), D Ryan (R Copeland 28; yc 36-46)), B Holland, D O'Callaghan (J O'Donoghue 65), CJ Stander (capt), T O'Donnell
Referee: I Davies (Wales)
Sunday Indo Sport