Leinster 23 Munster 17: To listen to Rassie Erasmus on Saturday evening in the aftermath of a fourth Aviva Stadium defeat in 12 months, you might have thought it was Leinster rather than Munster with plenty to put right heading into next week’s Champions Cup pool stages.
For the second time in three games the men in red had not just been outgunned and outplayed by Guinness PRO14 title rivals but had also contributed more than their share to the defeat.
Naturally, the Munster boss’s counterpart, Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, found significant elements of his team’s performance to work on ahead of this Saturday’s visit to the RDS by French moneybags Montpellier. Yet, following Saturday’s interprovincial derby loss it should be director of rugby Erasmus who has more cause for sleepless nights in advance of next Sunday’s trip to Castres.
Both he and captain Peter O’Mahony acknowledged poor discipline led to seven penalties conceded in the opening 40 minutes, after which Leinster led 14-7, and three costly ones in the second period which allowed Leinster skipper Johnny Sexton to put the game beyond the visitors. That Leinster were squeaky clean in the eyes of referee Ben Whitehouse, who also had no option but to yellow card Munster hooker Niall Scannell for a deliberate offside 20 minutes in, only compounded the Reds’ lack of control.
Erasmus, though, looked at the positives, chiefly outscoring Leinster by three tries to two and choosing to compare Munster’s position six games into the campaign and on the eve of European competition with the same situation 12 months ago, when his side were on the wrong side of a 25-14 defeat to their bitter blue-clad rivals.
Those are things that give the South African confidence his squad can go to southern France next weekend and get an invaluable away win at Stade Pierre Fabre, albeit against a Castres side that slumped to a fifth defeat in seven games on Saturday when they lost 27-22 at bottom-placed Brive.
“I mean last year we couldn’t score tries and in this game we scored three tries, and our discipline was bad,” Erasmus said.
“Last year from that we went on and made the semi-final, so we’re pretty much in the same boat.
“We only got one league point from this, but we played a totally different team than this, we played Racing.
“We’re playing Castres and we’ve watched them a little bit but we scored tries to still be second in our conference, there are many positives and Simon (Zebo) will be available, so yeah, we’re not sitting too bad.”
Erasmus appeared to forget the 32-7 victory over Racing 92 in Paris, came in January 2017 rather than October last year, the original fixture postponed following the sudden death in the French capital of head coach Anthony Foley.
That tragedy fired Munster’s resolve for the rest of the season, never more so than the following week in a rousing home pool win over Glasgow in round two, a day after Foley’s funeral.
This week’s preparations are sure to be fuelled by anger at a defeat partly of their own making but also because Leinster were so adept at closing down Munster’s main strike players, not least the carrying impact of No.8 CJ Stander.
“He’s definitely someone we targeted because he’s such a key individual for them,” Cullen said of Stander. “I thought the guys showed pretty good line-speed. A couple of times Stander got a bit of momentum but, over the course of the game, that was a pleasing aspect.”
Leinster’s opening try in the 17th minute encapsulated all of Munster’s woes in Dublin on Saturday. First the forward pass from centre Chris Farrell to Keith Earls which scratched the razor-sharp wing’s brilliant finish from 30 metres out. The subsequent scrum got Leinster on the front foot and led to a breakdown penalty, which Sexton kicked inside the Munster 22. From there, though Munster defended the initial driving maul well, the home side piled on the pressure, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock punching holes in the red line before centre Rory O’Loughlin broke between props Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan, hitting the latter and spinning out of the tackle to score under the posts.
Munster levelled with Scannell in the sin-bin thanks to a breakaway try under the posts from starting fly-half Ian Keatley, which he converted, but Leinster regained the lead when numerical order was restored, stretching Munster’s defences once again for O’Loughlin to grab his second before half-time.
Man of the match Sexton kicked two conversions in the opening period and three second-half penalties, the first of which took the Ireland and Lions fly-half past Felipe Contepomi’s mark of 1225 to become his province’s all-time leading points scorer on 1,234. And counting.
Leinster were the better side, despite Munster scoring a peach of a try at the death, courtesy of a clever lineout move involving the otherwise quiet CJ Stander peeling off the front, JJ Hanrahan staking his claim to a start at 10 next Sunday having moved from full-back once Keatley was withdrawn, with some sharp involvements in getting the ball out wide to Earls for his second try of the half to earn the losing bonus point.
In many ways, the scoreline flattered Munster but O’Mahony took exception to a line of questioning from TG4 interviewer and former Leinster and Ireland prop Reggie Corrigan that suggested Munster had lacked intensity. Asked about his post-match TV interview, the Reds captain said: “I think it’s a silly question, essentially calling myself and my team-mates out and questioning do we want it enough.
“Myself I’m a very proud Munster man and Irishman and that’s at the core of everything - everything is based around work-rate and you want to win, and for someone to question that I’d take huge offence at.” Just more fuel to the fire of what is sure to be a trademark Munster training week, pre-Europe.
Tries: O’Loughlin 2. Cons: Sexton 2. Pens: Sexton 3.
J Carbery; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, B Daly (F McFadden, 72); J Sexton – captain (R Byrne, 76), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park, 61); J McGrath (C Healy, 48), J Tracy (S Cronin, 48), T Furlong (M Bent, 48); D Toner, S Fardy (R Molony, 69); R Ruddock (J Murphy, 61), J van der Flier (R Ruddock, 72 - blood), J Conan.
Tries: Keatley, Earls 2. Cons
JJ Hanrahan; A Conway, C Farrell, T Bleyendaal (R Scannell, 66), K Earls; I Keatley (A Wootton, 44), C Murray (D Williams, 72); D Kilcoyne (L O’Connor, 67), N Scannell (R Marshall, 67), J Ryan (S Archer, 44); R Copeland (M Flanagan, 69), B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell (R Marshall, 29-31; J O’Donoghue, 63), CJ Stander.
Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
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