Sexton reigns supreme as Munster rue missed opportunity
Leinster 16 Munster 13
Munster let Leinster off the hook at the Aviva Stadium and are now in real danger of missing out on Champions Cup rugby next season as their chances of reaching the final four of the Guinness Pro12 receded.
The home side clung on to their three point lead in a dramatic finale that saw Reds prop Dave Kilcoyne take a quick tap penalty from within kicking range and Mike Sherry promptly knock the ball on after his side had failed to spot the massive overlap available against a Leinster side down to 14 men after Cian Healy was sin-binned.
Leinster ended their long wait for a try and got back to winning ways after successive defeats to leap-frog Connacht at the top of the table by virtue of having won more games, but Leo Cullen will know his side need major improvements if they are capitalise on their position with three games remaining.
Johnny Sexton scored all of their points on his return to provincial action, with his opposite number Johnny Holland not out-done as he did the same for Munster on the biggest occasion of his career to date.
Indeed, Anthony Foley may live to regret his decision to replace the 24-year-old Corkman before an hour had elapsed, as Ian Keatley missed a kickable penalty to put his side in front with his first touch and never got to grips with the occasion.
Having backed Holland, the Munster supremo might have been best served sticking with his new man rather than introducing his regular No 10 whose confidence can’t have been helped by the younger man’s selection.
Still, there was more to this loss than that call and Munster will head home with their heads full of regrets. This was a game they should have won.
Leinster started sluggishly and invited Munster to attack early on, but their captain Isa Nacewa stepped in to drill James Cronin backwards and force a turnover that allowed them relieve the pressure.
It was all fairly uninspiring stuff early on with both sides content to box-kick and bash it up.
The visitors looked the better team in the opening quarter and were denied a certain try by the hand of Sexton who managed to dispossess Simon Zebo as he attempted to take Conor Murray’s pass and score, but referee Ian Davies was playing advantage for a Devin Toner ruck-offence and Johnny Holland opened the scoring from the penalty.
Leinster were growing into the game without doing anything fancy and it was clear that they’d been working on their maul at UCD this week.
They twice drove off lineout possession only to have their maul pulled down, but when Sexton kicked to the corner a third time; nobody got off the ground to take Sean Cronin’s throw and a gilt-edged chance passed by.
Sexton did level when Donnacha Ryan was penalised for not rolling away after tackling his Ireland colleague. The equalising score was a double-whammy for Anthony Foley’s side who lost their second-row to a head injury and he didn’t return from his head injury assessment.
A clever kick-off from Holland led to Munster restoring their lead as Toner was again penalised for not rolling away and the young Munster No 10 made no mistake from the tee.
Referee Davies was playing an overly fussy role and Munster won’t have been happy with the penalty he gave against Murray that led to the game’s opening try. The scrum-half was harshly deemed to have gone high on Nacewa and Sexton found touch.
Munster again infringed when trying to stop the blue maul and this time Robin Copeland was sent to the sin-bin. Leinster went to touch again and, while their drive came up short, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath carried hard before Sexton got himself outside Francis Saili to end his side’s 250 minute-plus wait for a try.
The Ireland out-half converted and suddenly the hosts’ tails were up as half-time loomed and Munster were lucky that they weren’t further behind when Zebo scooped Ben Te’o’s chip into touch as Nacewa chased in what looked like an illegal action that went unpunished.
If Leinster went in on a high, it was their visitors who emerged from the dressing-room with greater need and by the time Copeland re-emerged from the sin-bin his side were back in front.
It all started with an excellent Keith Earls break that came to nothing when Garry Ringrose counter-rucked well and forced a penalty, but Eoin Reddan tapped the penalty in his own ’22 and Sexton kicked possession away, a decision compounded by Dave Kearney handling the ball in the ruck.
This time, Munster went to touch and executed a neat peel move that saw Tommy O’Donnell get over the gainline. CJ Stander was prominent as they hammered away at the Leinster line, before Johnny Holland spotted a gap between Sean Cronin and Zane Kirchner to score.
He converted his own score, but with the game suddenly opening up, Ringrose carved open the Munster defence and Saili stupidly infringed at a ruck to hand Sexton a chance to level.
Foley introduced Ian Keatley for Holland as the hour-mark approached and the replacement out-half’s first act was to miss a tough kick from the 40m line.
That error was compounded by a loose kick that led to Sexton putting his side in front again with a penalty won by Rhys Ruddock.
With so much riding on the result, it was set to be a tense last quarter and Munster were left to rue their inability to make an increasingly dominant scrum count.
They forced a penalty from Mike Ross, but then Ross Molony got a hand in to stop Copeland taking Mike Sherry’s throw and a good field position passed, before Murray tapped another scrum penalty and they surged forward only for Keatley to become isolated, allowing Luke McGrath to force an all-important penalty.
Back came Leinster, but the unimpressive Kirchner butchered a great chance by running into Nacewa’s space and, as the chance passed, a brainless no-arm hit by Cian Healy on Dave Kilcoyne handed the southern province one last chance.
The Ireland loosehead was deservedly sin-binned for the dangerous chop and Keatley went to the corner.
The first maul marched from the edge of the ’22 before it was hauled down and, had Davies been able to pick a player, Leinster might have gone down to 13.
The Reds couldn’t score with the advantage, so they went to the corner. The maul was held up, but Sherry surged forward and they got the scrum with Jamie Heaslip blessed not to have given away a penalty.
With Healy off, Leinster replaced Kirchner with Jack McGrath but Munster failed to identify their advantage, keeping it tight yet again. This time Heaslip was penalised, but with the clock at 80 minutes and the penalty within kicking range – Kilcoyne tapped quickly and Sherry knocked on when tackled by Molony.
The chance was gone, Leinster went top and Munster were left to rue a lost opportunity.
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), S Cronin (R Strauss 51), T Furlong (M Ross 64); D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 64); R Ruddock, J Murphy (J van der Flier 51), J Heaslip.
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 73); D Ryan (R Copeland 27), B Holland; D O'Callaghan (J O’Donoghue 65), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (capt).
Referee - I Davies (Wales)