Except for the very few Leinster supporters who made the long journey to Limerick, the record 26,200 crowd enjoyed their time at Thomond Park last night. It was a truly stirring encounter from the kick-off with Munster initially and then Leinster enjoying periods of supremacy.
Those Munster people who feared that this might be a banana skin against a virtual second strength Leinster side had their anxious moments, obviously when seven points behind for a decent spell in the first half and late on when they came within a tackle or two of stealing a bonus point.
A consolation for Leinster is how they proved they have a squad of serious depth.
Leo Cullen and his coaching staff may have been fearful of a Munster team desperately anxious to avoid a fourth successive defeat by their greatest rivals but that hardly appeared to be the case as they withstood some fierce assaults with CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony.
Their tackling was fearsome and on a number of occasions, it was apparent Leinster would be very difficult to stop in full flow.
And so it came to pass in the 17th minute when the speed and vision of Jamison Gibson-Park, their new scrum-half acquisition from New Zealand, created the necessary space for full-back Zane Kirchner to catch the home midfield napping and scorch over for a superb try.
To their credit, O’Mahony and company responded powerfully to the urgings of a now decidedly anxious crowd and Simon Zebo somehow wriggled and spun his way over in the right corner.
“We were doing our best to score and couldn’t and then they got one off a scrum, that was nervewracking,” admitted Rassie Erasmus. “We had to grind our way back into the game. We wouldn’t have wanted them to get a bonus point because it is a league we are playing.”
If there was an element of doubt concerning the actual Zebo touchdown, Ronan O’Mahony’s in the exact same corner of the pitch on the stroke of half time was a beauty.
Sadly the excellent Darren Sweetnam was tackled late in the move leading up to the score and it looks now as if a man who hasn’t missed a single match all season could be set for a spell out of action.
Four points up and with two tries in the bank, the Munster fans had one eye on a precious bonus point.
It was hard to assess whether Conor Murray’s perfectly placed high kick to the right corner was a stroke of genius or owed more than a little to good fortune. At any rate, it dropped between Tommy O’Donnell and Barry Daly on Leinster’s left wing. It really wasn’t a fair contest. Third try Munster, third touchline conversion Tyler Bleyendaal.
Munster’s earlier anxieties and inhibitions were now no more. The bonus wasn’t long coming following a powerful Munster maul with Stander coming up with the ball.
The home crowd were now in full festive mood. A tiring Leinster were left to protect their lines as wave after wave of Munster attack pinned them deep in their own territory.
Commendably, Leinster did break out and Richardt Strauss grabbed an opportunistic try converted by Nacewa and suddenly the visitors were within distance of a losing bonus point which in itself would have been a triumph for such an understrength squad..
It was not to be and Leo Cullen and his men departed with nothing tangible from the exercise — except perhaps the knowledge that the many youngsters on view last night will have benefited from the experience of taking on Munster in the cauldron of a packed out Thomond Park.
Typically, Cullen wasn’t for making excuses.
He said: “We came here believing that we had a strong enough team that could win the game. Don’t forget there were seven internationals in the pack tonight.
“We could have managed the game better and it’s disappointing to come away with nothing from the game. It heightens the need to beat Ulster at the weekend.”
For his part, Erasmus will relish the fact that his squad have stolen a five- march on Leinster at the head of the PRO12.
He will need to rest man of the match Stander and the excellent Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and probably Peter O’Mahony for Saturday’s visit to Connacht. He need not allow that to concern him unduly given the outstanding form last night of players like Ronan O’Mahony, who seems to get better with every outing; Jean Kleyn and replacements David Kilcoyne and Jack O’Donoghue and the return after long term injury of Francis Saili.
Leinster supporters will make little of the inevitable goading by their Munster counterparts by pointing out that they had left close on a dozen players at home.
Which all helps to maintain the kind of rivalry between the teams and without that Irish rugby would be all the poorer.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved