Hardly surprising that it all came down to a last-gasp penalty with Ronan O’Gara knocking over a 79th-minute effort to seal the deal at Thomond Park.
A year ago, Leinster came away with a 16-15 win, the only try of the game providing them with the vital ingredient for victory. On Saturday they looked like repeating the dose with the solitary try of an absorbing contest; unfortunately for them, Jonathan Sexton’s missed conversion was ultimately to prove crucial.
The win came at what could be a colossal cost, however, with Munster’s inspirational skipper Paul O’Connell helped off the pitch 46 minutes in with a serious ankle or achilles injury. Even with the confirmation that he did not fracture anything, it will be a pleasant surprise if he wears provincial colours again this season.
Leinster’s coach, Joe Schmidt wished O’Connell the best afterwards but one suspects, didn’t share the same sentiment for ref Andrew Small, given how often the visitors fell on the wrong side of the official’s judgment. In relation to the concession of 15 penalties, he said: “I guess people can look for themselves, we spoke about that at half-time, we knew they were likely to come, (it’s) a great pressure environment here. Not just players, officials feel it as well.
“That’s all part of the game, you’ve got to get above that and what you deserve and what you get are not necessarily the same thing.”
Leinster would have surely wondered just how they managed to edge into a 9-6 lead in the opening quarter; Munster had most of the territory but still managed to shoot themselves in the foot each time they looked like getting a grip of the game.
O’Gara twice edged them in front but they fouled up directly from the restarts and allowed Sexton to equalise before the Leinster number 10 kicked a third penalty. Then, after O’Gara kicked out on the full, after two successive scrums, Leinster scored a fine try with Isaac Boss, Gordon D’Arcy and Isa Nacewa paving the way for Shane Horgan to celebrate his 200th cap with a try at the corner.
The try was an indication of Leinster’s potential with ball in hand; Munster don’t seem to have that at present and had to rely on the forward momentum created by early brilliance from James Coughlan and David Wallace, although Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien did grow into the game.
O’Gara did narrow the gap with his third penalty after 25 minutes, Wallace and Keith Earls had promising half breaks but Leinster held a comfortable defensive line whilst still looking dangerous on the counter-offensive.
They didn’t have lots of territory but were patiently systematic in their build up; Munster had been forewarned by a less-than sympathetic Mr Small, and when Johne Murphy failed to roll away from a tackle, he was penalised and sin-binned five minutes before the break. Sexton exacted full retribution by kicking the penalty for a 17-9 lead and it got even worse when the out-half kicked another in the 38th minute.
The second half would surely be a stroll? Maybe that was the thinking in the Leinster heads as well. If so, they paid a heavy price. Munster — as O’Gara admitted afterwards, dreading the prospect of walking the streets of Cork and Limerick this week — looked a transformed side in the second half, committing more players to the troublesome breakdown area and prospering as a consequence.
Inch by inch, d penalty by penalty they worked their way back and four three-pointers (three from O’Gara and one from substitute Paul Warwick) to one by Sexton offered a reliable synopsis of the game’s direction.
With Leinster barely clinging on to a 23-21 lead, O’Gara missed a penalty after 70 minutes; when he got another opportunity in injury time, he didn’t flinch and nailed it.
The win solidified Munster’s hold on a home semi-final — perhaps against Leinster — but in the absence of O’Connell, it was worth much more. Suddenly the season is pregnant with possibility again.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett, J Murphy, L Mafi, K Earls; R O’Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (captain), D Ryan, J Coughlan, D Wallace.
Replacements: M O’Driscoll for O’Connell (46, injured), D Leamy for Ryan (53), S Tuitupou for Murphy (63), P Stringer for Murray, M Horan for Du Preez, J Hayes for Buckley (all 66), M Sherry for Varley, P Warwick for Jones (both 75).
LEINSTER: I Nacewa, S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald, J Sexton, I Boss, C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (captain), N Hines, K McLaughlin, J Heaslip, S O’Brien.
Replacements: H van der Merwe for Healy (55), E Reddan for Boss (60), F McFadden for Horgan (65), R Ruddock for McLaughlin (66)
Referee: A. Small (England).