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Same old story for Leinster in new reality

Brendan Fanning


Leinster's Jonathan Sexton and Munster's JJ Hanrahan acknowledge each other at the end of last night's clash Photo: Ramsey Cardy

Leinster's Jonathan Sexton and Munster's JJ Hanrahan acknowledge each other at the end of last night's clash Photo: Ramsey Cardy

Leinster's Jonathan Sexton and Munster's JJ Hanrahan acknowledge each other at the end of last night's clash Photo: Ramsey Cardy

Shuffling around the magnificent St Anne's Park in Dublin yesterday morning, we came across one of many games of juvenile Gaelic football. Rounding the posts, with play at the other end, we asked the home goalkeeper who they were playing. He paused for a moment, took out his gumshield, and said: "I'm not too sure".

Fair enough. None of us can be 100 per cent about anything these days. It seemed an appropriate start to a sporting day that began with circa 30 parents and mentors, socially distant but in breach of the latest guidelines, watching a match in a public park, and finished with some of the best and highest paid athletes in the country playing in a bubble.

Which is what the Aviva has become. You could sense the unease from those involved in the build-up to last night's restart of the Pro14 in Ireland that all would go well. Imagine the carefully built house of cards tumbling down on the back of some joker with a cough straying from the yellow zone through blue and pink to the red zone, where the aces were kept. This was opening night for a show that must go on.

Munster came looking to justify themselves and their South African spend, and to keep alive their chances of topping Conference B. Leinster were travelling lighter. Cabin baggage only for a team unbeaten this season.

The rain moved off right on cue, leaving a perfect surface and a blustery evening.

What we got was a full-on game of rugby, the first bit of live action for an Irish province since Connacht beat the Kings in Port Elizabeth on March 1. Despite the circumstances - being required to go 0-60 mph with uncommon speed, it was as good as we could have expected.

Often in this fixture there is a feeling of fatalism about it, that no matter what Munster do they are going to end up on the wrong end of the scoreline. It comes in increments. Here the lineout was the account in which these increments would be lodged. So having clearly done their homework in some detail about upsetting Leinster's lineout, they get to work.

Imagine the reaction in Munster households then when RG Snyman announces himself with a great steal of a Leinster throw. We followed the play before checking back to the scene of the crime where the South African is punching the ground in frustration as the physio is treating his knee. That was the end of his night. For company he had Dave Kilcoyne going off injured as well, so Johann van Graan had lost two of his front five.

Not only does this rob him of two starters but it also deprives him of the fresh legs Jeremy Loughman and Jean Kleyn could bring in the last half hour. The worst case scenario is another injury in the same department. Sure enough, before the hour is out centre Rory Scannell is coming off the bench for Kleyn. You could have forgiven Van Graan at that point had he popped his mask in the bin and slipped off into the gathering gloom on Lansdowne Road.

The next deposit came just before the break. Munster were leading 13-10, when Scott Fardy and Johnny Sexton declared zero interest in drawing level. Sexton sticks the penalty in the corner. Enter Peter O'Mahony, an extraordinarily effective lineout forward regardless of the circumstances. He has the ideal head for heights, scrapping in mid-air even if the safety net has been taken down. So he steals the Leinster throw but somehow they get their mitts on it. The effect of competing for the ball is to leave Munster a bit short in defending what comes next. Leinster rumble for a few metres and Henshaw dinks it through for Garry Ringrose to win the race and score. Half-time whistle. Munster's lead has become a 13-17 deficit.

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If you're struggling to catch a break then the manual tells you to focus instead on the nuts and bolts of the game, not the noise they make when the rust has set in. Still, when Sexton opened the door beautifully for Ryan Baird to put James Lowe over, the final pass looked forward. Play on.

And still Munster, 11 points down and looking like they were being blind-sided, stick to the script. Credit to O'Mahony and Billy Holland for keeping the lineout together, and to man of the match Chris Farrell for never failing to give them gain line. They have to regroup quickly, with or without their three injury victims, knowing that the best they might get from next weekend is to come back against Leinster in the semi-final.

Meanwhile, Stuart Lancaster will wonder how his team were run so close in the end, given the bits falling off the Munster wagon. He looks like he has a problem at loosehead too with Cian Healy, who went off holding his bicep.

The best news for Lancaster and Leo Cullen was the strength of their scrum, and the form of their midfield. Which by extension will keep Andy Farrell happy in Camp Ireland. Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, and Farrell all looked very good. We have a bit to go before Farrell gathers the group around him. This was a good start. Hopefully the bubble won't burst.

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