Munster’s unsung heroes rise to the challenge

The international contingent get all the breaks. With Joe Schmidt hosting a pre-Christmas camp in Carton House early in the week, the onus fell on the supporting cast in the provinces with Gordon D’Arcy the only player who started in Ireland’s last outing against Australia asked to play in the festive derbies in Limerick and Belfast yesterday.

With Thomond Park already sold out, there was a degree of dissatisfaction in the air with the team selections on both sides but on the half-time whistle the crowd rose to acclaim the efforts of both sides in what proved a cracking contest, played in a brilliant atmosphere.

Munster have always been supported by a knowledgeable crowd who recognise honesty of effort and that is exactly what they got from a side that gave everything. Even when Munster lost two key back rowers to injury in Robin Copeland and Tommy O’Donnell they lost nothing in terms of effectiveness, with the impact off the bench of their respective replacements in Paddy Butler and Dave O’Callaghan.

For differing reasons, there was big pressure on both Munster and Leinster to perform coming into this game. The thought of losing four in a row was bound to concentrate the minds of the Munster players while Leinster have been criticised roundly by their own supporters for their style of play, despite some very positive results recently.

In spite of those perceived shortcomings, Leinster’s back line looked the more dangerous with the positioning of Ian Madigan at out half attracting most of the attention, given the issues surrounding Johnny Sexton’s availability for the Six Nations championship.

Ian Keatley wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip either and he had a fine game, directing operations and putting Munster in the right area of the field despite playing against a very strong wind in the opening half.

Munster’s carrying, allied with the speed of the recycle was superb in the opening 40 minutes and but for a heroic defensive effort from the visitors, Munster could have had an even bigger lead than their five-point advantage at the break.

The Leinster back line was starved of any quality possession and as a result Madigan, D’Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald were offered no meaningful platform from which to work. It didn’t help that their back three of Zane Kirchner, Dave Kearney and Darragh Fanning had a nightmare in dealing with Munster’s very accurate kick and chase platform with Duncan Williams’ box kicking every bit as effective as that of Conor Murray.

When Leinster did have possession, Madigan appeared to single Ronan O’Mahony out for special attention when raining balls down on him but the Garryowen man dealt brilliantly with everything that came his way in a very polished performance.

Munster’s passing was far crisper and more accurate than anything we have seen of late, while Denis Hurley was hugely successful in doing what he does best in getting over the gain line and offloading in the tackle.

The lines of running from broken play offered by O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Copeland and from his replacement Butler, cut Leinster to pieces and constantly put the visitors on the back foot. Leinster didn’t help themselves with a procession of unforced errors while their receipt of kick offs also left a lot to be desired.

Munster’s only regret from this performance will be a failure to secure the four-try bonus point that looked on until Stander’s 50-metre dash at the death was called back for interference at the previous line out.

That said, Anthony Foley will have little cause for complaint on a night when so many fringe players stepped forward to make their mark. This was a night for the unsung heroes with Williams, Hurley, O’Mahony, Billy Holland, John Ryan and Stephen Archer all having big games.

The leadership provided from the back by Felix Jones was also exceptional with the former Leinster man tackling himself to a standstill, with one thundering hit on Kirchner leaving him visibly shaken. Beside all the young pretenders, Donncha O’Callaghan charged about the field as if on debut and you could see him revelling in the role of elder statesman as those around him gave everything to the cause.

Leinster’s equivalent in Shane Jennings brought all his considerable presence and experience to bear but was offered nothing like the response that O’Callaghan enjoyed. Munster will savour this one but will also be aware that they are likely to be on the receiving end of an equally hostile reception when they travel to Galway on New Year’s Day.

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