Let’s put this game into context, writes
Leinster arrived in Limerick 16 points ahead of their nearest Guinness PRO14 Conference B rival, Ulster, with a game in hand.
Munster started the day parked in third spot in Conference A, a point behind near neighbors Connacht and six behind Glasgow. Munster simply had to win at Thomond Park.
Leinster have lorded this fixture in recent times, winning six of the last seven. With home advantage and Thomond Park stuffed to capacity this was the perfect evening for Munster to lay down a marker for the remainder of the season as they bid adieu to 2018.
With both sides as close to full strength as you will ever hope to get at this time of year, this contest was always going to be spiky.
Unfortunately what transpired, especially over the course of an explosive opening 40 minutes, was over the top, with Leinster the main culprits.
Their indiscipline, with props Cain Healy and Tadhg Furlong yellow-carded before James Lowe received a red for a reckless collision with an airborne Andrew Conway, was extraordinary for a team of their quality and experience. By the interval alone they had conceded ten penalties.
Lowe is now likely to miss Leinster’s crucial Heineken Champions Cup outing against Toulouse with a ban certain to follow his dismissal. For a team that had received just one yellow card in 11 PRO14 games prior to Saturday to then cough up two more and a red in 32 minutes was completely out of character.
In this regard, their captain and World Rugby player of the year Johnny Sexton has to accept some responsibility. At a time when his side needed a cool head and a calming voice, Sexton was incendiary. His response to a hard but fair tackle from rookie Munster back rower Fineen Wycherley set the tone for what followed with experienced Wallaby second row Scott Farley also culpable having conceded three penalties in the opening quarter.
In the difficult circumstances referee Frank Murphy handled an extremely challenging situation with a calm assurance. And unlike some of his fellow officials in recent times, didn’t bottle it when it came to making the hard calls.
Lowe’s dismissal was fully justified while Healy’s yellow card owed as much to the penalties conceded by Sexton and Fardy in that fractious opening period as it did to his high tackle on Conor Murray.
Murphy’s only questionable decision, given the nastiness that simmered, was a failure to yellow card Murray for a high tackle, similar to Healy’s, on Jordan Larmour.
Once Lowe was dismissed on the half-hour mark, reducing Leinster to 13 for a period of eight minutes with Furlong already in the bin for a dangerous clean out that resulted in Chris Cloete being stretchered off the field, it was inevitable Munster would end a five-game losing streak to their great rivals.
While this win will be welcomed enthusiastically, the lingering worry is that Munster made such heavy weather of it.
Leading by ten points at the break, Munster never controlled proceedings in the second half, with Leinster refusing to concede an inch despite their numerical disadvantage. Given the fact that they had failed to score a single try in their previous two outings - those painful defeats to Castres and Ulster on the road - this was the perfect opportunity for Munster’s attack to flourish with a bit more space available, especially off set pieces.
Unfortunately that never happened.
In fact Leinster were so confident in their ability to contain Munster’s attacking threat, they never felt the necessity to withdraw a forward and introduce a back three player off their bench to cover the loss of their New Zealand winger.
Munster’s inability to flourish in attack was highlighted forcibly during the eight-minute spell prior to the break when Leinster were reduced to 13.
With an attacking scrum, centrefield on the halfway line, they never attempted to find where space was available. Leinster were vulnerable but Munster ended up running out of space after drifting towards the touchline.
The sight of the hosts taking a kick at goal during this same period with a two-player advantage was extraordinary.
In the end, it took a Keith Earls try off an intercept five metres from his own line with eight minutes remaining to put this contest to bed.
Given the circumstances, it should have been far more comfortable than that but Leinster refused to throw in the towel, with their defence working overtime.
They competed furiously at every breakdown and succeeded in putting massive pressure on Murray and Joey Carbery at half back.
While Carbery was immaculate from the boot with a 100% return from five kicks at goal helping to erase the memory of a difficult day against Castres, he was forced up too many blind alleys with ball in hand.
All the positives for Munster in this win were to be found up front with Wycherley, playing out of position in the back row, complementing some outstanding work throughout from Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander.
This victory was badly needed and, given the way the game developed, turned into a must-win encounter. Whether it proves the catalyst for better things in Europe remains to be seen.
What we do know is that Munster will have to produce far more in attack to prove any match for the top teams in that arena.