Munster 19 Leinster 34
This was the smallest crowd to attend a Munster-Leinster match at Thomond Park since the ground was redeveloped and the majority again went home disappointed after witnessing another utterly ruthless exhibition by the four-in-a-row champions.
Allowing for Munster’s Rainbow Cup win, this was a seventh successive Leinster win over them in this competition and in some ways the gulf probably seems as wide as ever. This was particularly true in Leinster’s execution and finishing, earning them a bonus-point win and a 10-point lead atop the table which points towards yet another home run to a final.
Class told, not least in the performances of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, the Robbie Henshaw-Garry Ringrose combination and the two-try James Lowe. Pulling the string expertly again was Ross Byrne, who is playing as well as he’s ever done.
The carrying of the big guns helped generate quicker ruck ball, but it was the accuracy of their backline launch plays, passers, decoys and receivers all working in perfect symmetry which flummoxed and narrowed up the Munster defence.
Yet at least this time Munster went down with ambition, and there was also much to admire in their performance, not least in the manner Alex Kendellen made light of the losing Gavin Coombes before the half-hour mark.
That said, Leinster were and are a class apart from all sides in the URC, and Munster’s attacking execution paled by comparison. And this defeat leaves them in danger of losing their top four place, given the Stormers are now five points adrift with a game in hand.
On an idyllic spring night for rugby, both sides looked to attack off both quick scrum and lineout ball in what was also a well refereed game.
Roaring their side on to the pitch, the home fans were quickly given reason to be engaged.
Leinster having reached Lowe on the edge with their first possession, Munster responded by keeping the ball in hand and played with width through the phases in the middle third of the pitch as a signal of their intent.
But after Ringrose picked off Stephen Archer’s offload Leinster responded in kind, generating even quicker ball and when Archer was offside Byrne opened the scoring.
Whereupon Leinster struck in classic style. From a lineout on halfway they again used Gibson-Park as effectively the first receiver running infield, Byrne passing flat across to the line to Ringrose who deftly pulled the ball back for Jimmy O’Brien, ghosting across the pitch to wraparound and link with Lowe. That said, Munster won’t be happy that they were squared up so easily.
Once inside the 22, there was an inevitability about what would follow, Leinster big runners pick-and-jamming until luring a hindmost foot offside for Byrne to pull the trigger, as he did for the opening try in Galway a week ago, to put Ringrose over on the left touchline.
Coombes was pinged in the jackal as Archer hadn’t been quick enough to roll away, but worse still after Carbery struck back from 40 metres, the Munster No 8 limped off having been cleared out from the side by Devin Toner when penalised minutes earlier.
Carbery’s fourth penalty edged Munster in front; Van der Flier having been pinged when his elbows hit the deck before looking for a second turnover in quick succession after a superb take by Conor Murray.
When O’Mahony and Niall Scannell held up Toner in the tackle for a turnover scrum the huge roar seemed a forerunner for a one-point interval lead, but the Leinster scrum shunted Munster back, Doris enveloped Kendellen, his team-mates counterrucked and their reward was another Byrne penalty for offside to make it 14-12 for the men in blue at half-time.
The term ‘championship minutes’ came to mind when Matt Gallagher couldn’t gather a Byrne bomb. Leinster introduced their heavyweight frontrow en bloc, this time working Ringrose outside the Munster defence with their launch play, again ramped up their carrying, notably through two big caries by Doris, before again using an advantage play for Byrne and Henshaw to put Lowe over in the corner.
Byrne converted from the touchline, added a penalty and then orchestrated another launch play off a lineout akin to previous ones, only this time from left to right, as Ringrose and Henshaw worked the ball to Lowe, off his wing and wrapping around, for the classy O’Brien to finish stylishly.
Trailing 29-12, to their credit Munster brought on Craig Casey and Ben Healy and shifted Carbery to fullback, and roused both themselves and the crowd. Earning a couple of close-range penalties they had no option but to tap and go, and with house money of their own with a penalty advantage, Casey and Healy worked Damian de Allende over, with Carbery a decoy out the back.
De Allende, beard shaven off for his first Leinster derby out of six in front of a crowd, enjoyed that one.
Healy shot up to nail Luke McGrath, and Kendellen brilliantly won a turnover, but this was undone by Diarmuid Barron’s crooked throw.
Leinster reimposed themselves once more, varying the point of attack with Lowe up the middle or O’Brien dancing on the wing, before Josh Murphy and Doris yet again pummelled some more hard yards and Byrne again put Lowe over in the corner with his floated pass.
Kendellen was inches short after a good carry by Barron, but by comparison Munster twice failed to convert a late chance into a consolation try which perhaps summed up the class divide.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 10 mins: R Byrne pen 0-3; 13: Carbery pen 3-3; 16: Ringrose try 3-8; 21: Carbery pen 6-8; 26: Byrne pen 6-11; 28: Carbery pen 9-11; 37: Carbery pen 12-11; 40 (+2): Byrne pen 12-14; (half-time 12-14); 48: Lowe try 12-19; 56: Byrne pen 12-22; 58: O’Brien try, Byrne con 12-29; 63: De Allende try, Carbery con 19-29; 74: Lowe try 19-34.
MUNSTER: Matt Gallagher; Calvin Nash, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jason Jenkins, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, Gavin Coombes.
Replacements: Alex Kendellen for Coombes (28 mins), Diarmuid Barron for Scannell, Josh Wycherley for Loughman, John Ryan for Archer, Thomas Ahern for Jenkins (all 56), Craig Casey for Murray, Ben Healy for Gallagher (both 59), Josh Wycherley for Loughman (68), Keith Earls for Nash (72).
LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose (capt), Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Michael Ala’alatoa; Devin Toner, Jack Dunne; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan for Tracy, Cian Healy for E Byrne, Tadhg Furlong for Ala’alatoa (all 46 mins), Josh Murphy for Dunne (49), Ross Molony for Toner (51), Ciarán Frawley for Henshaw (59), Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (65), Max Deegan for Doris (76).
Referee: Christophe Ridley (RFU).