REDEMPTION, vindication, satisfaction. Munster were entitled to savour all three emotions after what has been a difficult season ended on a high with this Magners League Grand Final success over newly-minted Heineken Cup winners Leinster.
A week after Leinster swathed Cardiff indelibly in blue following the mother of all comebacks to beat Northampton and claim a second European title in three seasons, Munster re-established Thomond Park as a red fortress with a rousing and thoroughly deserved victory.
Leinster were fatigued, just as Northampton had been by their previous exploits, but just as the Saints were outgunned in that second half at the Millennium Stadium, so too were Joe Schmidt’s side this past weekend for long sections of both periods.
Schmidt said Munster had “needed it more than we wanted it” and following devastating European exits at the hands of Toulon and at home to Harlequins, since the turn of the year, the axis of power within Irish rugby had been firmly transferred to Leinster after a golden decade of dominance south of the Pale.
Yet in denying Leinster a rare domestic and European double, and with a performance mixing not just youth and experience but their traditional, forward-based power and percentages game and a well-executed, prudently-deployed expansive game, Munster have shown they are not about to slip silently away from the thrust of things and let their provincial rivals have it all their own way in the seasons to come.
There is already a changing of the guard in terms of personnel, with Alan Quinlan, Barry Murphy and Ian Dowling retiring and Tony Buckley, Paul Warwick and Sam Tuitupou moving on while Laurie Fisher departs as forwards coach to make way for the rising coaching star of Anthony Foley.
And with Foley comes plenty of new playing blood, gradually integrated this season during a Magners League campaign that saw Munster top the league table from week two and not let up until defending champions Ospreys were dispatched in the semi-finals and new Euro kingpins Leinster dismissed in the title decider.
Yet this victory was built around familiar faces and time-honoured tactics. And when fly-half Jonathan Sexton, the man of the match in Cardiff with 28 of Leinster’s 33 points against the Saints, scuffed his sixth-minute penalty kick low, wide and horribly right, you suspected it was not going to be Leinster’s day. Munster, though, earned the right to make it theirs.
An opening try in the corner in the 12th minute from Doug Howlett, who benefited from a sprightly break from Lifeimi Mafi that came after the forwards had pounded at the door off a five-metre lineout.
Some ferocious rucking and counter-rucking throughout that subdued a previously all-conquering Leinster back row and a crossfield kick from Ronan O’Gara in the 66th minute that allowed Keith Earls to cut inside Isa Nacewa and ride a Shane Horgan tackle before grounding Munster’s second try.
There was plenty of loose and scrappy play in between from both sides, as befits a blood-curdling inter-provincial derby —inaccuracy at the tackle area to vex Welsh referee Nigel Owens and stray passes to enrage both coaches. But it was never dull, often exciting and always enthralling.
There was even the spectacle of Munster being awarded a penalty try with two minutes to go as a depleted Leinster pack was twice in quick succession forced to pull down the scrum following some mighty shoves from the home forwards.
“We knew we were well capable, but to pull it out on a day when we really needed it was certainly a great way to finish the season, and certainly a great way to finish the game.”
It capped a great evening for Munster and their fans although the game had really been decided in the 55th minute when man of the match David Wallace picked up the leg of Fergus McFadden as if he were a ripping a drumstick off a turkey and, with the help of James Coughlan, removed the Leinster centre from the try line to five metres out before stripping the ball as his cohorts in red piled over in support to the delight of the bulk of the 25,822 crowd.
Donncha O’Callaghan had been in the sin bin at the time for going off his feet as Leinster laid siege to the Munster try line and without their lock they continued to withstand the pressure until Wallace broke their hearts.
Schmidt’s men remained try-less, in fact, for only the third time this season and Munster had defended as if their reputation depended on it, which it did. They have some silverware to show for it now, and it would be a heartless person to deny them that satisfaction at the end of an often trying campaign.
MUNSTER: F Jones (P Warwick, 76); D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, K Earls; R O’Gara, C Murray; M Horan (W Du Preez, 53), D Varley (M Sherry, 59), J Hayes; D O’Callaghan (D Leamy, 66), P O’Connell (capt); D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan.
Replacements not used: S Archer, N Ronan, P Stringer, J Murphy.
Yellow Card: D O’Callaghan (48-58)
LEINSTER: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (P O’Donohoe, 77); H Van Der Merwe (C Healy, 59), R Strauss (A Dundon, 69), M Ross (S Wright, 69); L Cullen – captain, N Hines; S O’Brien (K McLoughlin, 59), S Jennings, J Heaslip.
Replacements not used: D Toner, I Madigan, E O’Malley.
Referee: Nigel Owens.
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