Toothless Munster fail to close the gap on Leinster

Picture: Ramsey Cardy

It’s not often we get a provincial derby between Leinster and Munster these days with both teams fully locked and loaded.

Therefore days such as Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final are occasions to be savoured.

The fact that both sides entered the fray with question marks hanging over them, albeit for vastly different reasons, only served to increase the element of spice and the desire to win. 

By omitting Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath from his matchday squad, in what would have been their last home appearances in Leinster colours after years of outstanding service, Leo Cullen made it absolutely clear that sentiment had no place to play in his thoughts.

Despite the toil and grind of yet another hugely demanding season, Munster arrived with all of their first choice players available for selection. 

Having Joey Carbery and Keith Earls back in the starting side offered a timely boost to the teams ailing attack, the only question being whether or not Munster had the capacity to create opportunities for that talented duo to weave their magic.

Therefore, regardless of the off-field turmoil that has resulted in the need for three coaching positions to be filled before pre-season training gets underway in a few weeks time, there were no excuses open to Munster heading into this one.

For Leinster, the biggest uncertainty surrounded their state of mind after the mental and physical battering they endured at the hands of Saracens in the Champions Cup final a week earlier. 

For them, winning this one was hugely important in banishing the demons of Newcastle. Making it to the PRO14 final next Saturday also offered the chance to finish the season with smiles and silverware.

With so many players from both camps going to be absent on national squad duty for the World Cup in Japan, it could be mid-November before many will wear their respective provincial colours again.

Important therefore to leave on a positive note.

A year ago to the day, the same two sides met at this stage of the tournament, a week after Leinster won the Champions Cup in Bilbao. 

Just a single point separated them at 16-15 in Leinster’s favour. In reality, that scoreline flattered Munster in a game where their passing skills proved substandard.

Twelve months on, Leinster fielded 17 of the same matchday squad, Munster 14. 

On paper at least, this was a stronger Munster outfit, the most significant change being that of Joey Carbery, who featured at full back for Leinster that day, lining out at No 10.

More than anything, that is why a 15-point defeat felt hugely damaging for Munster. At times this season there was a strong feeling that progress was being made. 

The nature of this defeat only serves to question that assertion. On the final whistle, a disgruntled Munster fan turned to me and vented his frustration. 

Sitting in the commentary box, it was just as well my headphones were still in place. Suffice to say he wasn’t best pleased with what he had just witnessed.

Once again Munster looked toothless in attack. The quality and variety Glasgow Warriors brought to their play in the seven-try demolition of Ulster on Friday night only served to highlight the vast chasm in the potency of both back lines. 

It’s not as if the personnel involved with Glasgow is superior to what Munster have on offer.

Yet Munster never threatened the Leinster try line, even when they were reduced to 14 men after James Lowe was yellow carded in an opening half when Munster enjoyed periods of dominance even if their multi-phase attack never really stressed a rock solid Leinster defensive wall.

During that period, Munster did succeed in putting more width on their game and the clever use of tip passes meant the point of attack was a bit more varied than normal. 

However, lack of progress on that front led to a change of emphasis immediately after the break when Munster became far more direct, reverting to type with big carries from Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander gobbling up the metres. 

Yet still no sign of a breakthrough try. Not only that, Munster failed to register a single point over the final half hour.

When Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer knocked on in promising positions in the Leinster half, the hosts grew another few inches. 

Then, in contrast to the period when Lowe was off the field in the first half and the sides traded penalties to cancel each other out, Leinster racked up ten points when Niall Scannell was yellow carded for lazy running on a promising Leinster attack.

Sean Cronin came alive, running a brilliant line to create the type of line break that Munster appeared incapable of generating, before finishing out wide at the end of two clinical passes delivered, under pressure, from fellow front rowers Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy.

It didn’t help the Munster cause that Leinster managed to restrict them to just five lineouts over the entire 80 minutes, three in the first half, two in the second. 

Denied their favoured attacking launchpad, Carbery was rendered powerless in his efforts to control and influence the game.

Even more damaging was the concession of 13 penalties, almost twice as many as Leinster on 7, which enabled the hosts dictate how and where the match was played. 

That coupled with the marked dominance of the returning Josh Van Der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan, in a back row that enjoyed a clear superiority over their Munster counterparts, enabled Leinster to pull clear as the second half progressed.

The introduction of Johnny Sexton off the bench for the final quarter only served to increase the tempo of Leinster’s attack with Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour becoming increasingly influential before Lowe, Munster’s tormentor in chief, inflicted the final wound on the stroke of full time with a try in the corner.

Glasgow’s comprehensive win over a shocking Ulster side at Scotstoun on Friday night represented a bonus for the tournament organisers, given that next Saturday’s final will be hosted at the home of Glasgow Celtic in Celtic Park.

That will help boost the crowd for what promises to be a riveting decider given the quality of attacking rugby played by Dave Rennie’s impressive outfit in that runaway 50-20 win on Friday. 

Given the close nature of Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster at the Aviva Stadium last month, Cullen has been put on notice of the challenge that awaits in retaining their PRO14 crown next weekend.

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