Leinster continued their dominance of Munster at Aviva Stadium on Saturday night as they took the derby honours in a pulsating Guinness PRO14 contest.
Three tries and five kicks on a perfect night off the tee for fly-half Ross Byrne spoiled opposite number Joey Carbery’s return to his home province, the Munster 10 kicking two of his three conversions and a penalty as the visitors slipped to a seventh defeat in their last eight meetings with their interprovincial rivals.
Yet while it was a much improved away performance for Johann van Graan’s side after disappointing visits to Glasgow and Cardiff this season, it still amounted to a third defeat from three on the road.
Munster had got off to the worst possible start as the champions jumped out into a 14-0 lead in as many minutes, losing Keith Earls to a yellow card into the bargain.
The Ireland wing was sent to the bin for an early tackle on opposing wing James Lowe before the New Zealander had received the ball five metres out from the Munster tryline. It was a margin call with the help of the TMO but referee Ben Whitehouse awarded the seven-point penalty try and gave Earls his marching orders.
There was more trouble for the visitors just three minutes later as the lively Lowe caused Munster greater angst by scoring in the left corner, Ross Byrne converting from the touchline to leave van Graan’s side reeling.
To their credit, the Reds snapped into life almost instantly and through a series of penalties, Joey Carbery manoeuvred his team into the Leinster 22 from where the Munster pack took over, a lineout maul opening the door for Tadhg Beirne to be driven through and over the line to score against his old province in the 19th minute. Carbery failed to do likewise with the conversion but he got another bite eight minutes later after his forwards rolled into action again, this time from a scrum. No.8 CJ Stander peeled off the back and his strength powered the Munster forward through Leinster’s half-backs and over the line. Carbery nailed the conversion this time to bring Munster within two points of their rivals at 14-12
Yet it was opposite number Byrne who had the final say in the opening period, his two penalties in the final 10 minutes of the half giving Leinster separation with a 20-12 interval lead.
Munster thought they had closed the gap once more just after the break when Earls pounced on a loose ball dislodged from Robbie Henshaw’s grip by a crunching Sammy Arnold tackle inside the 22. Earls accelerated away from danger to score up the other end only for referee Whitehouse to once again ruin the wing’s evening, harshly ruling Arnold’s tackle as a deliberate knock-on.
Munster’s agony as a result of that decision was soon compounded by some finishing brilliance by Lowe, who managed to ground in the left corner with Jean Kleyn trying to tackle the wing into touch. Byrne again delivered with the difficult conversion and with 45 minutes gone, the home side were 15 points to the good at 27-12.
This was no done deal, though. Munster fought back again, first through a long-range Carbery penalty. Then, once more, it was the forwards who unlocked an otherwise excellent Leinster defence, converting pressure into penalties and turning the screw through its scrummaging. Three times Leinster were penalised at the set-piece, enough perhaps to justify a penalty try but only reaping a final warning for home captain Rhys Ruddock. At the fourth attempt, Munster got their reward, scrum-half Alby Mathewson pouncing off the back of the scrum to score at the side of the posts and Carbery converting to make it 27-22.
And yet again, anything Carbery did, Byrne matched, his penalty 10 minutes from time widening the gap once more for Leinster, this time enough see off a game Munster effort.
It was not without collateral damage, Byrne’s penalty, his fifth successful kick making it 100 per cent off the tee on the night and earning him the man of the match award but proving his final act as he pulled up lame before the ball bisected the posts.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden (D Kearney, 74), R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne (N Reid, 70), J Gibson-Park (L McGrath, 53); J McGrath (C Healy, h-t), J Tracy (S Cronin, 56), M Bent (A Porter, 47); D Toner, J Ryan (M Kearney, 76); R Ruddock - captain, D Leavy, S O’Brien (J van der Flier, 63).
MUNSTER: A Conway; D Sweetnam (JJ Hanrahan, 70), S Arnold (R Scannell, 69), D Goggin, K Earls; J Carbery, A Mathewson (D Williams, 74); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 53), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 74), S Archer (C Parker, 74); J Kleyn (B Holland, 69), T Beirne; P O’Mahony -captain, T O’Donnell (C Cloete, 48), CJ Stander.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).