A sold out Thomond Park saw Munster secure a bonus point win against an under strength Leinster outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
Munster vs. Leinster. A local derby game to whet the appetite of supporters from both provinces was somewhat devalued by the decision of Leinster (more so IRFU) to enforce the player welfare protocol which saw the likes of O’Brien, Heaslip, Cronin, Toner, Ringrose rested for the encounter. A huge shame for those supporters who paid good money several weeks ago anticipating to see two full strength teams go at it hammer and thong. Munster had a full squad to chose from and the pundits and bookies point spread was indicative of pregame perceptions that the visitors would struggle.
Frenetic Opening Exchanges
Despite Leinster coming into this contest as underdogs, they started this local derby fixture in positive fashion. Leinster’s line speed in attacking and defensive duties caught the eye early doors as Munster at times struggled to cope as they struggled to establish quick go forward ball and also missed first time tackles which allowed Leinster early game line gains. It was this line speed which was to the fore when the visitors took a deserved lead on fifteen minutes; a well executed scrum saw the Leinster half-backs to combine brilliantly to allow Zane Kirchner who took a superb direct running line to go over for the try. The concession will be disappointing from a Munster perspective; defensive line speed was poor and an unfortunate slip from O’Mahoney allowed Kirchner the time and space to turn on the afterburners and score. Nacewa duly tacked on the extras and the try temporarily stunned the Thomond Park faithful into silence.
Superb Munster Response
The response from the hosts to the opening score concession was excellent. A well executed Munster lineout on the Leinster 22 rumbled into red zone territory. Several phases later and the ball made its way to Simon Zebo who somehow acrobatically got over despite the close attentions of Gibson-Park and Barry Daly. The try was superbly created; Zebo had no divine right to get the ball down for the try but it showed the player’s class and creativity in securing enough space to get over in the corner. The subsequent conversion from Tyler Bleyendaal was on point; an excellent kick from the sideline and the sides were level. The Munster opening try stirred the fans and despite Leinster retaking the lead from an Nacewa penalty (conceded after Jean Kleyn was penalized for a neck roll tackle), the momentum had shifted to the hosts.
Munster had the momentum leading into the interval but credit Leinster’s defensive line was solid and at times, the hosts looked devoid of ideas despite the best efforts of Conor Murray whose quick distribution was to the fore and James Cronin who tried a between the legs pass. Twenty-one phases later and Leinster’s defensive back wilted with Bleyendaal spotting O’Mahoney in space on the sideline and the Limerick native crossed for a superb score. The lead-up to the try saw a potential flashpoint not picked up by match official Nigel Owens, a clear late hit off the ball on the impressive Darren Sweetnam from Zane Kirchner. Player welfare issue surfaced after the resumption when Sweetnam failed to reappear for the second half; it was a reckless tackle and one that should have being seen at least a yellow card. Bleyendaal again executing a superb conversion from the touchline and the hosts were 14-10 up at the interval.
Dominant Munster Third Quarter
The game was put to bed in the third quarter. Nigel Owens again to the fore; on another day Leinster hooker James Tracy may have won his side a penalty under his posts for a determined breakdown win but Munster got away with it and Murray’s kick to the corner where Tommy O’Donnell jumped superbly to retain the ball and cross over for the third try. Bleyendaal again slotting the conversion and suddenly Leinster were facing an uphill battle.
The Munster faithful could sense a bonus point try was not long in arriving and it duly arrived when the workhorse CJ Stander crashed over from short range. Munster’s pack led superbly by Jean Kleyn mauled imperiously to the Leinster line and Stander had the simplest of tasks to touchdown. Despite Bleyendaal’s missed conversion, 26-10 was a match winning moment in the contest.
The one word that best described Leinster’s performance last night was resiliency. They refused to take a step backwards in defensive and attacking duties. The squad depth of the province is such that seven Ireland international fronted up in the pack and despite inexperience at the half-back positions, their back line boasted the likes of Nacewa and Kirchner. Eric Byrne at fly-half given time to develop will be a superb player; his game management in the opening period belied his professional career inexperience with probing kicks deep into Munster territory.
James Tracy at hooker has all the attributes to become a standout player for both province and national team; his energy and work rate is infectious. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster despite disappointed with the result will point to several good performances from his inexperienced lineup which will be required during the 6N period of the Pro12 tournament when squads are tested to their limits.
Leinster edged the last quarter and were rewarded for their efforts with a try from Strauss who spotted a gap in the fringes to cross unopposed. An opportunistic try but one that exhibited Leinster’s patience in phase play and ball retention during the leadup to try.
Job Done Munster
Munster will not get carried away with this win over their arch provincial rivals. The manner in which the hosts scored their tries were very impressive and illustrated good game management decision making. Creativity was to the fore for the first and third try scored.
Conor Murray continues to impress at scrum-half; the Limerick native is playing some of his best rugby of his career. His distribution from the ruck is fast and on point; his box kicking has never being in question but he has added flair and creativity in identify opposition defensive gaps. His pass to Zebo against Leicester a couple of weeks ago, his superbly pinpoint kick to O’Donnell are new traits to emerge from the player who is leading the battle for the Lions number nine jersey.
The work rate of the side was good for the second and third quarters of this contest, the spell where the hosts put this fixture to bed. Erasmus will potentially look at the slow start in the opening period; the management team will realize that such a lethargic start will not be good enough on the road to Galway, Paris or Scotstoun in the next couple of weeks.
The news of Jaco Taute extending his stay for an additional six months is superb news. The South African player has made such a positive impact to the club with his leadership, professionalism. Rory Scannell at twelve is a different player this season; much owes the impact of Taute who has allowed the Cork native to make line breaks and probing kicking behind opposition defensive space.
Francis Saili introduction to proceedings in the last quarter is more welcome news to Munster. The competition for places even for game day squad is intense; a good way to be leading into a crucial period of games in January. Munster travel to Galway on New Year’s Eve with a probably diminished squad to chose from but it will be an opportunity for players such as Marshall, Du Toit, O’Shea, O’Donoghue to stake their claim for more first team starts.
Five points clear at the top of the Pro12 league. It has being a great end to the year in the league for Munster. It is a great shame that the resurgence for team and fan base took place immediately after the tragic loss of Anthony Foley. Thomond Park sold out signs are back in vogue; the team is playing a brand of rugby which is incorporating Munster forward values yet adding offensive width as well with the likes of Sweetnam and O’Mahoney availing with several tries each scored so far this season. Exciting times ahead for the province but tougher challenges lie ahead.