As an introduction to interprovincial derbies go, this was a rude awakening for the South African. Van Graan saw his new charges fall from the heights they had reached in back-to-back European pre-Christmas wins over Leicester Tigers. Instead they put in an at times shambolic first-half performance to allow the visitors open out a commanding interval lead at 27-5, then witness a fightback early in the second period only to fall victim to one of the tries of the season from Larmour.
Munster had been forced into some last-minute changes when Keith Earls’ comeback from a hamstring injury was delayed by illness and Rhys Marshall presented with symptoms of the concussion he sustained on December 9 after the home Leicester Tigers Champions Cup victory having completed his return to play protocols. Marshall must now start the process again in order to pass fit for the January 1 trip to Ulster.
At least van Graan could parachute in a pair of in-form replacements without reshuffling his bench, Munster’s leading try scorer this season Alex Wootton coming in for Earls on the left wing while Kevin O’Byrne got the chance to follow up his impressive Champions Cup start at Welford Road.
Leinster’s changes from the side which did the double over English champions Exeter Chiefs were more notable, given the larger contingent of internationals in the IRFU player welfare programme having their minutes minded. They were missing a serious number of A-listers but still had a look of menace about their selection. No Sexton, Nacewa or Carbery to manage the game or kick goals? No problem with blossoming fly-half Ross Byrne at the controls, the 24-year-old getting his side off to the perfect start with a second-minute penalty conceded from his kick-off as Dan Leavy made a nuisance of himself.
It was a portent of things to come in what would be an awful first half for a home side lacking discipline and intensity.
When Byrne sent over a crossfield kick to the left corner, there was not a Munster player within metres of Leavy as he collected and galloped over for the opening try on nine minutes, the fly-half converting and adding another penalty soon after.
At 13-0 after as many minutes it was quickly turning into one of those days for Munster. Yet Munster’s first venture into the Blue 22 produced a try, the forwards applying pick and go pressure on the line before Conor Murray took over and went through the tackles of Jamieson Gibson Park and James Tracy to score. Keatley missed the conversion and Munster’s problems were far from over. James Lowe kicked ahead down the visitors’ left wing and appeared odds on to touch down, only to be denied by Andrew Conway - illegally, as he pulled Lowe down before he reached the ball. Referee Owens and his Irish TMO Simon McDowell ruled for a penalty try and yellow for Conway.
A man short, Munster paid the price as Leinster’s day got even rosier two minutes later when Leo Cullen’s side cut a swathe through the home defences for Robbie Henshaw to grab a try following good work from midfield partner Rory O’Loughlin, Byrne’s conversion extending the lead to 27-5 just 23 minutes in.
The sell-out crowd of 26,627 were growing impatient with the repeated concession of possession to their potent rivals, encapsulated just before the break just as the scrum was getting on top of Leinster’s and a penalty outside the visitor’s 22 provided an ideal opportunity to get some sort of traction on the scoreboard ahead of the expected half-time hairdryer treatment from van Graan. Captain O’Mahony pointed to the corner but Keatley promptly kicked it long and dead.
Whatever the Munster head coach said at half-time it did the job, for his players were, collectively, a different beast after the interval. With the intensity ratcheted up several notches, Leinster suddenly had something to worry about. Early second-half pressure produced a Keatley try and conversion and when Rory Scannell sent a skip pass out to Andrew Conway for a 48th-minute try, converted by the flyhalf off a post from near the right touchline, it was game on, much to the delight of the shivering Munster supporters.
At least until Larmour stepped up to put his side firmly back in control with the bonus-point try and the score of the game. The Academy back, still only 21, caught a Keatley kick and neatly stepped by Sam Arnold, then ghosted past Rory Scannell. Next in line was Keatley himself, turned inside out by the youngster, who made a beeline for the tryline. Only replacement Simon Zebo could stop him now, making up lost ground and eventually hauling Larmour in. Yet the carrier was already over and though Zebo managed to turn Larmour in the tackle he showed there was more than just footwork to his game to get the ball grounded. Byrne converted to open up a 15-point lead at 34-19.
Munster still had a bonus point to salvage and they got it through a late Conway try in the right corner, their fourth of the game.
A second, losing bonus point was on the cards though a missed touchline conversion from JJ Hanrahan was as close as they got.
A Conway; D Sweetnam (S Zebo, 45), S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 71), C Murray (D Williams, 74); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 61), K O’Byrne (N Scannell, 45), S Archer (John Ryan, 61); J Kleyn, B Holland (D O’Shea, 74); P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell (J O’Donoghue, 60), CJ Stander.
J Larmour; B Daly (N Reid, 58), R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne (C Marsh, 77), J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy, 74); J McGrath – captain (E Byrne, 40), J Tracy (R Strauss, 65, replaced by Tracy 77), M Bent (T Furlong, 47); D Toner, James Ryan (M Kearney, 47); J Murphy (J van der Flier, 66), D Leavy, J Conan.
Nigel Owens (Wales)