Munster 29, Leinster 17: Munster laid down a marker over their Guinness Pro12 title rivals as they saw off old enemies Leinster in style at Thomond Park.
The bonus-point win, as they outscored second-placed Leinster by four tries to two, extended their lead at the top of the Pro12 table to five points and was of further significance given Munster ended a three-game losing streak to their old rivals in front of a record 26,200 crowd.
It also marked a confident return to form as Rassie Erasmus’s players showed their mettle to rebound from a narrow December 17 Champions Cup defeat at Leicester Tigers and finish 2016 unbeaten for the calendar year at Thomond Park.
Leinster, in fact, had been the last team to win in Limerick having won the corresponding fixture last December 27, but they made Munster’s job easier by returning without a string of frontline players as head coach Leo Cullen rested several Irish internationals under the IRFU’s player management protocols.
Those that were selected paid a poignant tribute to the late Anthony Foley as they wore red No.8 warm-up jerseys ahead of kick-off and they made it clear after the first whistle there was much more substance to the visiting team than merely making up the numbers.
Leinster started brightly, first weathering an early Munster onslaught and then gradually growing in confidence through the prompting of third-choice fly-half Ross Byrne.
Last April it had been Munster’s young fly-half Johnny Holland looking cool and composed as he stepped into the breach during a playmaking crisis at the Aviva.
Eight months on and in a cruel reminder of the cruelty of this sport, Holland, forced to retire in September due to a serious hamstring injury, was performing pre-match trophy presentations but there was still an opportunity to see a young number 10 make his mark.
Leinster’s Byrne was the latest to look completely at ease on the bigger stage as he filled the vacuum created by injuries to Johnny Sexton and fellow young gun Joey Carbery.
Clever kicks and some good decision-making put Leinster on the front foot and the visitors took the lead through a Zane Kirchner try on 18 minutes, the full-back running a smart line onto Byrne’s flat pass that wrong-footed and stranded Ronan O’Mahony in the line with no at home behind him.
Isa Nacewa’s conversion opened up a 7-0 lead and suddenly Leinster’s so-called B team looked a very different prospect. Yet Cullen would come to rue a lack of accuracy and efficiency from his players and Munster, having huffed and puffed for long periods in the opening quarter, roused themselves to exploit their guests’ shortcomings, not least in the lineout where Donnacha Ryan picked off two James Tracy throws.
“I thought we had a strong enough team but we just weren’t accurate enough in terms of winning the ball or when we had the ball,” Cullen said. “There’s a lot of areas we can be better and it’s another huge game (against Ulster) on Saturday, in five days’ time. It will roll around very, very quickly.”
Munster finally made their multi-phase play in the Leinster half count 22 minutes in when Simon Zebo conjured an excellent finish in the right corner, scrum-half Conor Murray satisfied the round the corner play from his forwards had stretched the blue line sufficiently for his to send in his wing.
Zebo still had plenty of work to do but, tight to the line, he spun out of his tackle and made an excellent plant of the ball with his body still airborne. It took ref Nigel Owens and his TMO Kevin Beggs a little while to confirm the score but Munster were up and running, Tyler Bleyendaal’s touchline conversion levelling the match.
“That’s what you get with Zeebs,” Erasmus said. “He does things that have people tearing out their hair and thinking ‘why is he doing that’ then when he scores tries like that, that’s why he is doing it. You know he can do things like that which is great.
“You can’t just win games with tactics and plans individuals within the system must sometimes doing something special which is what he did. It’s wonderful to have a player like that in your team.” A Nacewa penalty edged Leinster in front soon after but when Munster went in front once more on the stroke of half-time they would not fall behind again.
Again, the home side camped on the Leinster line and again, when the time was right, they went wide with clinical effect, this time Bleyendaal providing a long pass that skipped Sweetnam to fool Kirchner, with Ronan O’Mahony popping up on his opposite wing to score in the corner. Another touchline conversion sent Munster in 14-10 at the break although their lead was soured by the sight of Sweetnam being helped from the field having shipped a late hit from Kirchner.
Not that it derailed Munster any. Tommy O’Donnell was the next to score in the right-hand corner as he expertly fielded a Murray crossfield kick, this time after 18 phases in the Leinster 22, the flanker juggling the ball under pressure from Barry Daly.
Bleyendaal, being made to work hard for his points, added a third touchline two-pointer to continue his excellent evening’s work and though he missed a fourth, when CJ Stander touched down a mighty Munster rolling maul to get the bonus-point try in 56th minute, it was easy to forgive from a Munster supporters’ perspective, particularly when the New Zealander sent over a penalty six minutes later to extend the lead to 29-10.
A 77th minute try from sub hooker Richardt Strauss, converted by Nacewa came too late to threaten a Leinster comeback or even an assault on a losing bonus point, leaving Cullen to take defeat on the chin and Erasmus to savour revenge for October’s 25-14 loss at the Aviva.
“Leinster convincingly beat us when we played there,” the Munster boss said, “they were obviously on a run of consecutive wins, would have been high on confidence, and we had to bounce back from losing last week. Trying to keep momentum is sometimes a tough thing, but I thought it was really tense, almost like a Test match. I don’t know if other teams are used to that, but for me it was a really tense match, so I’m glad the boys stuck out there and got the four tries at the end.”
Tries: Zebo, R. O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Stander. Cons: Bleyendaal 3. Pens: Bleyendaal.
Zebo, Sweetnam, Taute, R. Scannell, R. O’Mahony, Bleyendaal, Murray, Cronin, N. Scannell, J. Ryan, Kleyn, D. Ryan, P. O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Stander.
Conway for Sweetnam (41), Saili for Taute (64), Williams for Murray (70), Marshall for N. Scannell (63), B. Holland for Kleyn (70), O’Donoghue for P. O’Mahony (67).
Tries: Kirchner, Strauss. Cons: Nacewa, Molony. Pens: Nacewa.
Kirchner, Nacewa, O’Loughlin, Henshaw, B. Daly, R. Byrne, Gibson-Park, Healy, Tracy, Furlong, Molony, M. McCarthy, Ruddock, Leavy, Conan.
Reid for B. Daly (56), T. Daly for R. Byrne (70), Strauss for Healy (63), Dooley for Tracy (63), Bent for Furlong (63), Nagle for M. McCarthy (56), D. Ryan for Ruddock (67).
Nigel Owens (Wales).
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