Leinster made light of their European final disappointment in Newcastle to brush past rivals Munster and ease into next Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 decider.
The 15-point margin of victory did not do justice to the defending champions, who kept alive their hopes of retaining their league crown a week after losing their Champions Cup title to Saracens.
Leo Cullen’s side must now travel to Celtic Park to face a rampant Glasgow Warriors side in their home city and after seeing off Munster by two tries to none, both scored in the second half by Sean Cronin and James Lowe, the PRO14 will now get a finale between its two best side, both of whom topped their respective Conferences.
For Munster, it was the second season in a row that they had lost back-to-back semi-finals in Europe and the league but head coach Johann van Graan could have little complaint as his side were simply bettered by a Leinster side determined to make amends for their 20-10 loss to Saracens at St James’ Park seven days earlier.
Munster had made a late change to their bench with Fineen Wycherley replacing veteran lock Billy Holland as the second-row replacement. It was another disruption at the end of a difficult month following a heavy European semi-final defeat to Saracens which had seen assistant coaches Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones announce their decisions to leave the province at the end of this season and a fortunate victory at home over Benetton in the play-off quarter-finals.
Yet if Munster were distracted by any of it, they did not let is show during a closely-fought opening half at the RDS. Peter O’Mahony’s side set about their task with the same aggression and intensity they had reaped rewards from in the last meeting between the provinces on December 29. Munster won that one at Thomond Park to level their regular season series with Leinster and they brought the same template to Dublin for this third instalment as they looked to knock the defending champions out of their stride.
The previous Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final loss to Saracens must have exacted a huge physical toll on Leo Cullen’s side but it was not apparent as they matched their rivals blow for blow during the opening exchanges and took the lead with the opening score, a Ross Byrne penalty on three minutes following a high tackle.
Joey Carbery, playing his first game since March 30, proved he was over his hamstring injury as he kicked Munster level against his home province and former team just two minutes later and the visitors were lifted again soon after that when their pack won a scrum penalty to the delight of their travelling supporters in a sell-out 18,977 crowd.
Yet converting good positions into points remained an issue for Munster and having gained good territory from that penalty, advancing to the five-metre line, Leinster managed to relieve the pressure with a turnover.
Munster came back again and this time were stymied as they moved the ball wide by a James Lowe intercept which Scottish referee Mike Adamson ruled the New Zealand wing’s intervention had been a deliberate knock-on and issued a yellow card. Carbery kicked the resulting penalty and Munster had a 6-3 lead. Munster could not make more of their numerical advantage, however, as Leinster defended with resolve and then went on the front foot, Munster straying offside and Byrne levelling the scores with a penalty, after which Lowe returned from the sin bin to a huge cheer, the danger period seen out on even terms.
Leinster would see out the first half three points in front as Byrne slotted another penalty in added time, the home side 9-6 to the good at the interval.
There was more trouble for Munster after the break as Leinster began strongly, piling on the pressure and getting their reward as Sean Cronin broke through a Niall Scannell to advance to the visitors’ five-metre line. Luke McGrath recycled and his pass struck the retreating, offside hooker Scannell, who was issued with a yellow card and Munster were up against it, down to 14 men.
Byrne kicked the penalty and though Carbery replied with a three-pointer for Munster to keep it close at 12-9, Leinster blew the contest wide open with a sweeping passing move started in his own half by Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour that was finished by their front row, the ball passing through the hands of Cian Healy and fellow prop Tadhg Furlong who found hooker Cronin eight metres out. Cronin sidestepped Jean Kleyn with ease and touched down with Ross Byrne’s conversion opening up a 10-point lead at 19-9 on 54 minutes as Scannell’s sin-bin period came to an end.
And all this before Leinster had the luxury of bringing on Johnny Sexton to replace fly-half Byrne.
Sexton was an immediate threat, breaking the Munster line to carry his side into the opposition 22, but though the Reds rallied it was not destined to be their day. Turned over in front of the Leinster posts on 64 minutes and a home scrum penalty three minutes later appeared to hammer home Leinster’s second-half dominance, compounded by a lineout maul penalty in the next sequence of play. It was all too simple as Leinster saw the game out in comfort, Munster’s season brought to a crushing end as the Boys in Blue crowned their victory with a last-minute try in the corner for Lowe.
J Larmour; D Kearney, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (R O’Loughlin, 32-39 HIA & 78), J Lowe; R Byrne (J Sexton, 55), L McGrath (N McCarthy, 71); C Healy (E Byrne, 61), S Cronin (B Byrne, 61), T Furlong (A Porter, 61); D Toner (S Fardy, 39), James Ryan; R Ruddock - captain, J van der Flier (M Deegan, 76), J Conan.
J Lowe 24-34 mins
M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin, 67), K Earls; J Carbery (JJ Hanrahan, 72), C Murray (A Mathewson, 67); D Kilcoyne (L O’Connor, 71), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 76), J Ryan (S Archer, 55); J Kleyn (F Wycherley, 55), T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain, CJ Stander, A Botha (J O’Donoghue, 55).
N Scannell 44-54 mins
Mike Adamson (Scotland)