Given the trail of destruction Leinster have left in their wake on visits to opposition grounds this season, it would be easy to portray Munster as just another hapless victim of a superbly efficient rugby machine.
True, the men in red were the 13th side this season to succumb to this relentless march towards more silverware as Leinster extended their 100% record in both the Guinness PRO14 and Europe since September. And yes, the Boys in Blue sit pretty atop Conference A with nine wins from nine, 11 points clear of nearest rivals Ulster. Munster, thanks to their losing bonus point, returned to the top of Conference B but lag a dozen points behind their oldest foes on the other side of the draw.
Yet this was a game in which Munster worked hard enough to win but were let down by a profligate second-half performance which saw them, with a strong breeze at their backs, squander chance after chance to close the gap on a 13-3 interval lead for the visitors that had been all too easily ceded through cheap penalties that were easy pickings for Ross Byrne and Ed Byrne’s ninth-minute converted try.
Meanwhile, Munster toiled with a kicking game first half that failed to make allowances for the teeth of the wind into which they were playing.
“Kick execution was a bit of an issue in the first half,” Munster head coach Johann van Graan admitted. “I thought we adapted pretty well in the second half and there were a few things, one or two kicks not good enough, but for me the main thing was our discipline let us down in the first half.”
Leinster relied on some big-hearted defence for much of the second period that was aided by the home side’s lack of cutting edge and execution that left van Graan frustrated to say the least.
A penalty either side of the break from JJ Hanrahan was their only reward despite extended period of pressure inside the Leinster 22 that were all too regularly ended by the concession of penalties five metres out, at the breakdown and lineout, poor passing and, in the final minute, a Ross Molony lineout steal as Munster looked poised yet again on the five-metre line to snatch a draw.
“Look, they defend incredibly well,” van Graan said, preferring to focus on Leinster’s resilience under pressure rather than his own side’s poor execution “I thought we actually carried pretty well and specifically five yards from the goal line they were just very good. They stopped us, we just couldn’t get over the line.
“I will have to review all the single breakdowns, but they defended pretty well. It was such a tight contest, both sides of the ball.
Not one of the two teams really moved the ball in the 22, just because both defences were so good and like I said they held out and that was ultimately the difference in the game.
Despite the promptings of Hanrahan, his replacement, a fit-again Joey Carbery on his return from an ankle injury suffered on Ireland duty, and inside centre Rory Scannell, that failure to execute at the business end of the field had left van Graan frustrated, he admitted after further prompting.
“I guess so. We said at half time, let’s just build the score and once we got in there we got that three points and then in the last 15 it became a tactical battle and we knew we needed to score a try to get even and we kept the ball pretty well.
“At one stage, I am not sure how many phases there were and like I said we just couldn’t get over the line, so I thought both teams are very fit and both teams used their benches pretty well and the frustration is that we didn’t score a try.”
Such has been Leinster’s superiority in this so-far unbeaten season, scoring 147 points combined for their previous three outings in Europe and the PRO14, that Leo Cullen earned the right to look back on this performance with a focus on the bigger picture and measure the progress his younger players have made since the previous visit to Limerick 12 months ago when Munster had won 26-17 and Cullen’s side had lost their heads with an uncharacteristically ill-disciplined performance.
What impressed their head coach this time around was a different, more positive aggression.
“It’s great, the bit of fight in the group,” Cullen said. “Even though they are not perfect performances, they are good, spirited defensive performances.
“It’s a very difficult place to come here. I’m sitting here getting déjà vu from this time last year, the mood in comparison was so different, where we had a very ill-disciplined performance. The discipline today was so much better. We gave away one or two cheap penalties, a couple at the scrum, it was a little messy some of the pictures, I’ll look back at some of those images.
We were a little bit unlucky in one or two of them. Other than that the discipline was good.
“For the most part, we were keeping Munster from getting very close to our tryline. But then there is the fight to stay in the game when they get very close to our tryline. That constant wave after wave and it is bread and butter for them; so to keep them out is very, very pleasing.
“The group has worked hard, all the way through since the start of pre-season in the middle of June when they came back in. When you think back to some of the pre-season games that we have had and the exposure and experience they were building all the time.
“Coming away to hostile environments and getting positive results... The Glasgow game two years ago, we really struggled over there in November. To go back two years later and get a win was great. This time last year we struggled here and with a much more experienced group of players. So to get a win here today is great.”
M Haley; D Goggin (C Nash, 76), S Arnold, R Scannell, S Daly; JJ Hanrahan (J Carbery, 56), N McCarthy (N Cronin, 65); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 51), K O’Byrne (D Barron, 74), S Archer (K Knox, 54); F Wycherley, B Holland - captain; T O’Donnell (D O’Shea, 74), C Cloete (J O’Sullivan, 54), J O’Donoghue.
H Keenan; A Byrne, J O’Brien, C O’Brien (C Frawley, 58), J Lowe; R Byrne (T O’Brien, 79), R Osborne (H O’Sullivan, 65); E Byrne (P Dooley, 57), J Tracy (S Cronin, 57), A Porter (J Aungier, 74); D Toner, S Fardy - captain; J Murphy (R Molony, 65), W Connors (S Penny, 76), C Doris
Frank Murphy (IRFU).