Sexton stars as Leinster overpower Munster ahead of European challenge
Leinster 23 Munster 17
This was far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests as Leinster sailed into Europe with a big derby win and plenty to work on and Munster were left with a whole host of questions.
If they play this way in Castres next Sunday, they’ll be in big trouble. Their tight-five were out-muscled, their discipline was poor and their backline looked disjointed and had to live off scraps to stay in the game.
It was eerily reminiscent of their three heavy defeats at the Aviva Stadium last season when Leinster, Saracens and Scarlets all handed them lessons at the venue.
Despite all the talk of improving the game-plan, this wasn’t encouraging.
They need second-row Jean Kleyn back quickly to give them an edge up front, while JJ Hanrahan may have played his way into the No 10 shirt due to another poor outing from Ian Keatley and an ineffective effort from Tyler Bleyendaal beside him.
If would be no surprise if Erasmus started without them both next week. Certainly, they finished with a late flourish to earn a losing bonus point with Hanrahan running the show.
Leinster, meanwhile, can expect a stiffer challenge from a beastly Montpellier outfit packed with world class talent next Saturday at the RDS and while their attacking game wasn’t all they wanted it to be they can reflect with satisfaction.
Their shape needs work, but after a disjointed opening to the season they looked sharp. Scott Fardy looks an excellent addition, while Joey Carbery is growing into the full-back role.
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Behind a dominant pack, man of the match Johnny Sexton controlled matters well and a rusty Robbie Henshaw will only benefit from the experience.
“We felt like we got a pretty good first-half despite it only being 14-7. Didn’t take opportunities and our mistake gave them seven points. We drew encouragement from our defence when we weren’t giving them silly penalties like we did in the last 20 minutes,” Sexton, who became Leinster's record scorer, said.
“There were lots of positives and plenty to work on as well. We’re going to have to go up a couple of levels against best teams in France next week.
“It’s always a tough battle, physical and fast and it puts us in good stead for next week. We’re happy to get the win, hopefully we kick on from here and it kick-starts our season.”
They might have had a more comfortable finish, but they’ll take the win and move on.
This game has often been something of a slug-fest, but from the kick-off both teams played with intent and moved the ball wide.
After an eventful opening 13 minutes, Keith Earls looked to have opened the scoring in scintillating fashion as he skinned Joey Carbery, slipped through Rory O’Loughlin’s tackle and left Barry Daly for dead.
But as Ian Keatley lined up the conversion, referee Ben Whitehouse spotted what the rest of the stadium was complaining about – Chris Farrell’s long pass had been clearly forward – and brought it back for a scrum.
Instead, it was O’Loughlin who opened the scoring at the other end three minutes later after Dave Kilcoyne handed them field-position with a no-arms tackle.
Johnny Sexton kicked to touch and after a couple of big carries from Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong the centre exploited a poor John Ryan tackle and CJ Stander couldn’t stop him from touching down.
Sexton converted and Munster were reduced to 14 men minutes later as Niall Scannell batted down Henshaw’s pass to Furlong who had numbers up outside him.
Leinster couldn’t make their advantage pay and needed a brilliant Carbery tap-tackle to deny Earls who picked up Henhaw’s knock-on and looked like heading the length of the field. He popped the ball up to JJ Hanrahan, but Devin Toner found himself in the right place at the right time and killed the momentum.
They didn’t get away with it a second time, however, as Munster rushed up and got the reward as Henshaw couldn’t hold Sexton’s pass and Keatley took full advantage to score and convert to level the scores.
When Scannell returned, his team were in a far better position and were exploiting the spacing issues in Leinster’s attack well by heaping pressure on the ball carriers.
So, the home side varied their game and Sexton decided to bring the big men into it before exploiting Adam Byrne’s brilliant aerial ability.
The winger claimed one high ball over Earls, before tapping down the next and this time the men in blue wouldn’t spurn the opportunity as a Sexton wraparound released Carbery and while he might have made it himself he unselfishly fed O’Loughlin for his second try.
Sexton converted and it stayed 14-7 until half-time but he extended the lead within four minutes of the restart, becoming Leinster’s all-time leading scorer when he punished Farrell’s high tackle on Carbery.
They might have gone further in front when Jack Conan burst through, but failed to spot Luke McGrath on his inside and his pass to Devin Toner didn’t stick.
Things were beginning to look worrying for Munster whose poor discipline was forcing them to live off scraps, but they took their chance when it came when a loose Niall Scannell throw popped up for Tommy O’Donnell from ’22 to ’22.
Carbery had him covered, but Adam Byrne bit in just enough for Earls to gain a yard when O’Donnell found him left and the ace poacher finished well.
Hanrahan couldn’t convert as Leo Cullen rotated his front-row and the new combination of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Michael Bent delivered another penalty for Sexton to make it 20-12.
An excellent ruck penalty earned by Josh van der Flier allowed the out-half extend the lead.
Munster desperately needed the ball and a silly penalty concession from Conan - Leinster’s second in an hour of rugby – handed Hanrahan the chance to kick to touch.
The maul was brought down illegally, a second penalty went into the corner and a third when Leinster impeded the lift of Peter O’Mahony.
They went back to their drive, but this time Leinster held firm and forced a scrum to the delight of the home faithful in the 46,374-strong crowd.
Luke McGrath cleared and then Scott Fardy picked off Niall Scannell’s throw. It was becoming increasingly clear it wasn’t going to be Munster’s day.
Forced to chase the game, they began to make errors and when Alex Wootton lost the ball in his own ’22 it was looking like curtains until O’Loughlin knocked on.
Leinster were thinking bonus point, but Hanrahan beat Daly to a clever Jamison Gibson-Park chip ahead to deny him a try.
Instead, Munster finished strong and Earls earned them a bonus point with 90 seconds to go with another fine finish in the corner.
The losing bonus and the winger’s fine performance were rare bright spots in a difficult afternoon.
LEINSTER – J Carbery; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, B Daly (F McFadden 73); J Sexton (capt) (R Byrne 76), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 62); J McGrath (C Healy 49), J Tracy (S Cronin 49), T Furlong (M Bent 49); D Toner, S Fardy (R Molony 70); R Ruddock (J Murphy 62), J vd Flier (R Ruddock 73), J Conan.
MUNSTER – JJ Hanrahan; A Conway, C Farrell, T Bleyendaal (R Scannell 66), K Earls; I Keatley (A Wootton 46), C Murray (D Williams 73); D Kilcoyne (L O’Connor 67), N Scannell (R Marshall 67), J Ryan (S Archer 46); R Copeland (M Flanagan 69), B Holland; P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell (R Marshall 29) (J O’Donoghue 64), CJ Stander .
Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales)