Contrast, if you will, a great learning experience for a young but fast-developing Leinster side with the frustrating failure of senior Munster players to consistently execute when it matters most. The reactions of the two head coaches to what they had seen on Saturday night emphasised the gulf in class that currently and patently exists between these two provinces.
For Leinster’s Leo Cullen, his decision to entrust the final game of the United Rugby Championship regular season to his second string as his elite group of first-choice stars put their feet up in the Aviva Stadium stands ahead of this Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final proved to be an emphatic win-win.
An extra week’s preparation for his frontliners between a blistering semi-final defeat of Toulouse and this weekend’s trip to Marseille and the challenge of Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle without the distraction of a meaningless game in a league campaign already wrapped up with the top seeding was achieved without regret while the chance for the next one or two rungs down on the ladder of this mightily impressive Leinster squad to showcase their potential in an Irish derby played out in front of 32,411 supporters will prove invaluable.
That they won as well, with a bonus-point try and denied their rivals a home URC quarter-final and sent them into a trip to Ulster on June 4 in the process was the cherry on top of the icing on the cake.
Not that Munster had been without their moments, particularly in an entertaining first half that had seen both teams score two tries apiece – Scott Penny and Cormac Foley for Leinster either side of a quickfire double from Jack O’Donoghue and Mike Haley.
And when Conor Murray scampered over a minute after half-time for a try converted by Joey Carbery that gave the visitors a 19-15 lead, the assumption was that what would follow was the required try bonus point that would lead to the victory necessary to secure second place in the final standings and a last-eight date back at Thomond Park on June 4.
That assumption did not entertain the prospect of Leinster’s young guns and slightly wiser, more experienced heads rising to the challenge and proving a point or two of their own.
The bravado, tempo and accuracy of scrum-half Foley on his home debut, the dazzling footwork, acceleration and deceleration of returning full-back Jordan Larmour and the canny lineout disruptiveness of veteran replacement lock Devin Toner all conspired against a Munster side desperate to avoid an away quarter-final but without the composure or the skillset under pressure to get the job done.
It was Foley’s 50-22 in the 50th minute that turned the game on, a decisive momentum changer that sent Munster back inside their 22 and then behind their tryline as Leinster’s maul from the resulting lineout was collapsed, prompting referee Frank Murphy to award a penalty try and send hooker Niall Scannell to the sin bin.
That allowed Leinster to stretch an undermanned defensive line and Larmour did just that with his third defence-busting carry of the night, his ability to change direction and elude tackles all too familiar to Munster supporters as he carved open their team to create the space out wide for Rory O’Loughlin to claim his side’s fourth of the night.
A fortnight ago in the same press conference room at Aviva Stadium, Munster’s exciting yet ultimately heartbreaking assault on Toulouse had left Johann van Graan in tears at the bravery, fearlessness and ability of his players to take Europe’s defending champions all the way to a penalty-kick contest before their Champions Cup quarter-final was decided in favour of the Frenchmen.
There were very different emotions at play last Saturday night as van Graan surveyed the damage of this defeat. A failure to secure a home quarter-final, forcing his side on the road yet again in the knockout stages of the URC with a trip to Belfast now in the offing. He will not experience a full Thomond Park again as his five-season tenure as head coach ends of his own volition at the end of the season and he departs for Bath, the odds on him leaving with silverware now considerably lenghtened.
“The performance wasn’t good enough,” van Graan said. “I think the frustrating thing for us is the fact that we created a lot and didn’t finish it. The penalty try, yellow card, the try straight from that kick-off, that hurt us. When you fall 10 points behind against Leinster they don’t let you back in and they didn’t give us an option of that tonight.”
No wonder Cullen was grinning like the Cheshire cat. “One of the most pleasing parts is probably the start of the second half,” the Leinster boss said. “Munster get that (Murray) try, the ball goes up in the air and they get the bounce and it was a little bit of fortune, obviously they take the try.
“But the composure of our guys, particularly with some young guys, would they get themselves back into the game? But to be fair, they get a fair bit of control back into the game and produced plenty of moments. The penalty try leads to a (Niall Scannell) yellow card for them and suddenly we’re in the ascendancy, guys coming off the bench made decent impacts as well. We’re delighted to get the win. You see guys growing in terms of the experience bit, and you want them to be better in the future. And to get through that in front of over 30,000 people, it’s fantastic.”
J Larmour; R Russell, J Osborne, C Frawley (A Byrne, 25 - HIA), R O’Loughlin; H Byrne (D Hawkshaw, 76), C Foley (B Murphy, 57); E Byrne – captain (P Dooley, 49), S Cronin (J McKee, 49), T Clarkson (C Healy, 49); J McCarthy (A Soroka, 65), J Murphy (D Toner, 54); R Baird, S Penny, M Deegan.
R Russell 39-49
M Haley; A Conway (B Healy, 63), C Farrell, D Goggin (R Scannell, 54), K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray (P Patterson, 75); J Wycherley (J Loughman, 54), N Scannell, J Ryan (K Knox, 53); J Kleyn (J Jenkins, 48), T Ahern (J Daly, 64); F Wycherley, A Kendellen (D Barron, 59-63), J O’Donoghue - captain.
N Scannell 51-61
Frank Murphy (IRFU)