DONAL LENIHAN: Ignore the scoreline. Munster still have a long way to travel

The opposing mindsets coming into this game served to set the ground rules. Munster’s quest for silverware for the first time since 2011 stood in stark contrast to Leinster who were fresh and, in all probability, still recovering from parading their latest European conquest a short distance down the road in Donnybrook, only six days earlier, writes Donal Lenihan.

Reaching the last four of both domestic and European competitions might well be deemed a successful season for numerous teams spread across Europe but not for Munster, especially when Leinster are the ones that invariably manage to close the deal and progress to the decider.

The fact that Leinster were pushed to the brink in accounting for Racing 92 in last week’s Champions Cup final might suggest to some that Munster are not far off the mark when it comes to adding a third European title of their own.

For that to happen any time soon, and on the evidence of yet another disappointing semi-final defeat on Saturday, Munster need more control and authority from out-half, a greater cutting edge in midfield while their skill set also needs to improve greatly.

While there was no questioning Racing 92’s right to progress to the Champions Cup final on the back of their first-half demolition of Munster in Bordeaux, Munster have only themselves to blame for losing this one.

Discipline has been a problem for Munster throughout the PRO14 this season and when Jean Kleyn collected their 11th yellow card of the campaign — it could have been red for a reckless entry to the ruck — you knew they were in trouble.

Munster conceded 14 penalties at the RDS. Ireland averaged six per game in the Six Nations and that contributed massively to winning a Grand Slam. Leinster conceded only six penalties, despite being put under all kinds of pressure by a determined, extremely physical, and willing Munster side who lacked the finesse to convert opportunities into points on the board.

The fact that Klein’s dismissal came after yet another sustained period of promising attacking play in Leinster’s 22 only served to let the newly crowned European champions off the hook at a time when they were under siege.

To their credit, despite still being down to 14 men in the period immediately after half time, Munster responded with a spectacular, unconverted try from the outstanding Keith Earls after a brilliant assist from Simon Zebo. It’s what they did immediately after that, however, that served to seal their fate in a game they could and should have won.

Immediately from the restart, Munster conceded a needless penalty which Ross Byrne converted to reduce the net return from that superb Earls effort only a minute earlier to two points. It also proved to be the first of seven penalties Munster conceded in the second half alone. That, coupled with far too many unforced errors, ultimately sealed their fate in a tight contest.

For the second semi-final in four weeks, Munster finished stronger than their opponents but were merely playing catch-up. That too has to change. They can’t keep allowing opposition build a lead and hope to haul them in.

Munster enjoyed sufficient territory and possession to win this one but it was their use of that possession that let them down. On a perfect day for running rugby, Leinster were content to defend narrow and force Munster to go wide. Were they confident that Munster didn’t have the passing game to open Leinster up? It would appear so.

All teams thrive on turnovers and statistically Munster came out on top in this key sector with Leinster conceding 13 to Munster’s 8. What that doesn’t take into account is the fact that Munster were guilty of making five forward passes, from a variety of players, when seeking to put one of their wingers into space in the wide five metre channels.

That’s five scrums to the opposition to launch a first phase attack. That skill deficiency was even more pronounced given the perfect conditions for running and passing. It hurt Munster badly as both Earls and Andrew Conway were in scintillating form and had the ability to beat their opposite man by virtue of their outstanding footwork.

To be fair, both their opposite numbers in Jordan Larmour and especially James Lowe were equally as menacing in possession. Simon Zebo too had his moments in what transpired to be his last appearance in a Munster jersey even if he too was guilty of some wayward passing.

The difference in the handling ability of both sides was demonstrated forcibly off one of those Munster turnovers when Lowe handled on three separate occasions in a breakout that set up Jack Conan for Leinster’s key try after only eight minutes.

Despite that early setback, Munster had plenty opportunities to win the semi-final but ultimately it was the quality of the Leinster bench that saw them through. Having dominated the scrum for large periods of the match with James Cronin competing well against Tadhg Furlong in the tight and excelling in the loose, the introduction of a new, all international front row in Cian Healy, James Tracy, and Andrew Porter enabled Leinster to reverse the trend. Wallaby Scott Fardy and, right at the death, Max Deegan also enjoyed influential moments.

Once again Munster were left to rue events and wonder what might have been on the final whistle. The scoreboard, with just a single point separating them, might suggest that there is little between the sides but that would be misleading. Munster have a distance to travel to come near matching their nearest rivals and end a trophy drought that now extends into an eighth season. For Leinster a historic double remains on the cards.

Scarlets’ illuminating win at Glasgow Warriors on Friday not only offers them an extra day’s rest and recovery but suggests what promises to be an enthralling final will be a lot closer affair than their recent Champions Cup semi-final. Leinster will be required to go to the well for one last effort to seal what has already proved a magical season.


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