The final plays of yesterday’s 16-6 Guinness Pro14 win for Leinster Rugby yesterday are still in my mind. Leinster Rugby could have gone for the marquee highlight moment and secured another try as they did throughout the game, they toiled with Munster Rugby and ended their suffering kicking the ball out to finish the contest. A complete and utter dominant performance, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the final showcase which failed to live up to expectation.
A league for it to be successful needs to be competitive, it needs to have teams emerging and knocking the title holder off their perch. This is certainly not the case for the Guinness Pro14. There was only one team winning this tournament again this term and that was the team playing at home in the RDS.
Leinster Rugby may have lost games against Ospreys and Connacht Rugby but those losses only sharpened management and squad to produce a finals performance which sufficiently put Munster Rugby to the sword. Four titles in a row. Utter dominance. The league is a procession for Leo Cullen’s men.
Leinster Rugby are an incredible side and organization. The work ethic and application from management and squad is immense. Their organization and cohesion in their unit plays is the standard bearer for the league. It was emphasized yesterday with the speed and tempo from the side from minute one. Conor Murray unceremoniously dumped into touch after a misfiring Munster Rugby restart. It set the tone. The Leinster Rugby players bouncing, vocal and working with cohesion and coordination. Munster Rugby suffering with each passing minute.
The pregame points from certain Irish pundits were that this was Munster Rugby’s year but I failed to see where this logic came from. The head to head record was overwhelmingly to Leinster Rugby, they were the top seeds and reigning league champions. The mantra that Munster Rugby’s time had arrived was more hope than expectation. Until the side get over the line in a final against their provincial rival, it is hope not expectation.
Each playoff loss, each final loss appears to have cast more self-doubt in this Munster Rugby setup. The side were off the mark from the first minute. Yes, there was a renaissance of sorts in the second quarters with some key try saving defense. Coombes ball carries and turnover ball but Leinster Rugby were controlling the possession, the tempo and ultimately the territorial battle. 6-6 was a baffling score at the break given Leinster’s dominance. Munster Rugby needed to improve but regressed further.
The opening exchanges of that second half proved crucial. Munster Rugby looking to batter their way through the Leinster Rugby defensive line in midfield and then turnover ball saw Leinster Rugby provide the nous, the creativity to create gain lines. Munster Rugby were under the pump and the Conan try was more a matter of when and not if. The game was broken open. 13-6 and Leinster Rugby continued to turn the screw, more pressure and cue a Munster Rugby pen concession. 16-6. Game over.
Finals are occasions where sides leave everything out on the pitch, leave the pitch with no regrets but for Munster Rugby, there will be big regrets. The attacking game plan was box kick central. de Allende and Farrell were periphery figures, no fast ruck ball to allow the three quarters to stamp their mark on the game. The Munster Rugby pack were nullified. Beirne and Stander were identified for their breakdown threat and the sheer pace and power of Leinster at ruck time saw that this core threat was addressed.
The decision making from both sides were a contrast. Leinster Rugby running through phase after phase, half-backs looking to penetrate. Henshaw looking to probe and setup significant line breaks. Munster Rugby rattled from minute one, passing laterally more in hope of space than any conviction that it would emerge. Earls to Haley quick lineout snuffed out by Leinster Rugby in the opening period surrendering more possession. Box kick to death to alleviate the battering that Munster Rugby were suffering in the pack exchanges.
The conditioning of the packs were quite stark. The Leinster Rugby front row in particular mobile and contributing to open play. Munster Rugby’s front row looking dead on their feet from the opening quarter. The pack platform was never established by the visitors, the attacking maul failed to muster any progression. No punch thrown by Munster Rugby in attack. Leinster Rugby courtesy of Conan, Henshaw, O’Loughlin, McGrath, Fardy (imperious) ensured an efficient final win.
Leinster Rugby said the right things post-game but this was a regulation final performance. Leinster Rugby did what they had to do but even Leo Cullen would have been surprised by the distinct lack of attacking intensity offered by Munster Rugby. It was a game which will provide confidence for Leinster Rugby but Toulon will provide more attacking threat this week in European action. Their dominance in domestic league action may be a hindrance in Europe down the stretch.
By winning yesterday, Leinster Rugby have set a record for the most consecutive wins in this fixture (6) and on the back of this performance, that trend may be set to continue. Leinster Rugby in Guinness Pro14 are imperious. The introduction of the South African sides is a welcome boost, they will increase the standards in the league and perhaps put it up to Leinster Rugby as the rest of the league are struggling for consistency and quality.
The Rainbow Cup should be an opportunity for teams to run their squad depth chart. Munster Rugby after this final performance need to give squad members a chance to stake their claim to starting berths next season when the big European or league games take place.
The side needs youth and energy in the ranks, skill set issues again seen to full effect yesterday with this senior team core. If the tried and trusted are selected once more in this Rainbow Cup, van Graan needs to reflect on where this programme is going under his leadership.
Playoff fixtures have and will see teams (Toulouse included next weekend) to rattle Munster Rugby early. Munster Rugby’s composure rattled and the initiative is surrendered. You get away with it only so much during a season but when faced with teams in the top bracket, you don’t have a prayer.
Once upon a time, the shoe was on the other foot. The pack would send out the message of intent early but this Munster Rugby pack is not built of the same ilk. When it comes to the business end of the season, the side are clearly exposed, the gaps grows ever wider. They were bullied yesterday by Leinster Rugby from start to finish.
The body of evidence is quite compelling, time for Munster Rugby to make some hard calls and look to make the adjustments necessary. What is the actual attacking game plan? Why have Larkham in this coaching ticket if box kick central is the route to success on the big games? Rowntree’s role within this setup needs to increase, the guy is a winner and would put his stamp on proceedings.
As you can tell, van Graan’s reign for me personally is at a defining period. His comments yesterday post-game suggested an acceptance that Leinster Rugby were not going to be beaten yesterday. An acceptance that he has gone as far as he can with the side? If that is the case, then frank discussions are required within the organization immediately.
For Leinster Rugby, the hunt for five is on next season and only the South African sides potentially can stop them. A superb team and one that is the standard bearer for this league in Europe!