Munster's painful lesson: If you don’t take your chances against Leinster, they will

This loss isn’t a killer for Munster’s season, far from it, but it poses some key questions that many thought had been answered in the Stade Marcel-Michelin
Munster's painful lesson: If you don’t take your chances against Leinster, they will

Munster man of the match Tadhg Beirne dejected as Leinster players celebrate at the full-time whistle. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The snow whirling around Thomond Park before kickoff looked less like the PRO14 as it did something out of Game of Thrones. Winter is Coming? Nah, winter is very much here and it set the scene for a fascinating, bruising contest between Munster and Leinster. 

The stands were empty, of course, the latest lockdown saw to that, and you have to appreciate the irony. The doom-mongers have told us all for years that rotated sides would kill these games as spectacles and the first time in a long time that both sides wheeled out the big guns in Thomond Park ends up being behind closed doors.

If fans had been present, they’d have been treated to a rugby truism - if you miss big kicks in big games, you’ll come to regret it.

The Munster forwards warm-up in the snow. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The Munster forwards warm-up in the snow. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

JJ Hanrahan left six points behind him in this game. Munster lost by three. You can talk about winning and losing as a team, and Munster have certainly done that against Leinster over the years, but this game was a perfect of example of what happens when you leave kickable points behind you off the tee. 

It’s the gift and curse of being a fly-half and goal kicker. Make your kicks, as Hanrahan did against Clermont, and you get to be the hero. Drop two makeable kicks - one from a distance but straight in front of the posts and one from deep inside the Leinster 22 - and questions will be asked.

The same questions were asked back in September and the same questions will be asked now. If you don’t make your kicks, simply put, and you invite an inquisition.

An engrossing first 40 minutes split itself in two when it came to dominance.

A view of Thomond Park ahead of the game. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

A view of Thomond Park ahead of the game. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

The first quarter belonged to Munster, who made excellent gains off the box kick - so much for the criticism during the week - and pressured Leinster in contact. A try followed an early Hanrahan penalty and Munster found themselves with a 10-point lead. You have to make your purple patches stick against Leinster and there will be an awful lot to like in that initial period from a Munster perspective.

But you can’t expect to shut out Leinster forever. They came back, on the foot of a series of Munster lineout malfunctions and sloppy penalties, but they started to rack up numbers in possession and territory. They pulled a score back in the 25th minute and then just kept tipping away in the game. 

Every Munster mistake in the lineout was punished by losing ground, if not points, and Leinster bossed the last quarter of the first half. Munster’s close-range defence and heavy jackal threat by Beirne left the southern province off the hook on a few occasions. 

Right at the end, it felt like Doris had gifted Munster a dream end to the half - a penalty right in front of the posts from around 45m out. 13-3 after the last 10 minutes of the first half? It wasn’t to be. The ball came back off the post, Marshall conceded a needless penalty in the scramble, Cronin did the same at a breakdown a few phases later, and it was 10-6 at the half.

If you don’t take your chances against Leinster, they will. It’s a cardinal rule in rugby at this stage.

The second half was pretty much all Munster but, wait for it, those missed opportunities that killed the southern province in the PRO14 semi-final came back to haunt them again. 

Stream rises from a maul at Thomond Park. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Stream rises from a maul at Thomond Park. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

A fantastic sequence of phases right at the start of the half earned a penalty deep inside the Leinster 22 but Hanrahan pulled it right and wide. That isn’t just a miss on the scoreboard, it’s a drain on energy. 

A few moments later, Munster won another penalty and Hanrahan only pulled four or five metres off the kick, Munster lost the lineout and that would be that for Marshall and Hanrahan who were replaced soon after.

Hanrahan is a good player but this was not a good game against Leinster, for the second time in a row.

Even so, Munster had a lot of possession for the rest of the game but Leinster did enough to keep them out. A malfunctioning lineout didn’t help Munster - in either half - but, at the same time, they were managing to contain Leinster for the most part. 

It stayed tense and scoreless until the last 10 minutes where a Leinster lineout strike put Larmour away into the corner. These are the kinds of positions that Leinster are used to sticking around in, being patient, and taking their chances. They did just that at the crucial moment.

Leinster's Jordan Larmour celebrates after scoring the winning try. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Leinster's Jordan Larmour celebrates after scoring the winning try. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

When you think about it, Leinster were set up to defend Munster in that second half and big performances in defence from Ryan, Porter, and Doris stood out all the way through. Munster defended well too, differently, but too much indiscipline and bad reads were their undoings at key points.

In the end, Munster were pushing in the aftermath of a kicking duel to boss territory but they never really looked like making the breakthrough. A spilled pass from Haley to De Allende sealed the deal but you got the feeling that it would be Leinster indiscipline that would lose them the game at that moment but it never came.

Another loss. Will Munster be kicking themselves? Absolutely. Could they have won? Certainly. Does that mean anything in the end? No. 

If you’re bossing the possession and territory metrics but leaving scores behind you while your lineout malfunctions over and over again, you will struggle to beat Leinster. That was shown to be the case back in September and the same is true now. 

While I think it’s fair to say that Munster know how to beat Leinster intellectually but, right now, they can’t seem to actually make it happen on the pitch. At least they will know where and how they lost this game, which is slightly better than not knowing I suppose, but it won’t make the loss any easier to swallow.

Leinster, on the other hand, will be delighted and rightly so - they were pushed relatively hard here but had enough to eat up the pressure and secure the win with their first coherent lineout strike of the game. They will come away from this game with a few work-ons too but those are way easier to handle when you’ve got a W in your back pocket.

Munster's JJ Hanrahan takes a kick. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Munster's JJ Hanrahan takes a kick. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Leinster do what champions do and that’s win close, tense games in the big moments. It’s rarely about one big play. It’s winning the small moments in succession so that they lead to big moments.

Until Munster can close that gap on the field, and begin winning those big moments, this is how it will always go. This loss isn’t a killer for Munster’s season, far from it, but it poses some key questions that many thought had been answered in the Stade Marcel-Michelin. 

What comes next, as always, will be interesting.

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