Leinster 16 Munster 13: With the clock on 79 minutes and 49 seconds a snap poll of not just Leinster’s supporters but the province’s players and coaches as well would have seen the vast majority settle for a draw in this typically tight Guinness Pro12 battle with rivals Munster.
Leading by three and with a penalty against them on their line as the 14 Leinster men struggled to hold out a full complement of their fiercest foes, a levelling kick between the posts from close range to share the points would have been an outcome few in blue could have bemoaned.
Yet before they even had a chance to contemplate the stalemate, the scenario was rendered obsolete by Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne.
The loosehead prop replacement instead scented glory and an heroic exit from Aviva Stadium. He tapped the penalty within an instant of the referee’s whistle and charged towards the line, moments later watching fellow front row Mike Sherry knock on in the face of a thunderous Ben Te’o tackle.
With the clock past 80 minutes all that was left to do was negotiate the scrum, leaving Luke McGrath to dispatch the ball into the night sky and celebrate a three-point win.
Seven days earlier it had been Leinster in Munster’s position, camped on Connacht’s line and desperately searching for a victory. Like Munster, they had failed to execute and it cost them the win. A week on and this success leapfrogged Leo Cullen’s side over Connacht into top spot on points difference with three games to play, and daylight opening up between the two Irish provinces and third-placed Scarlets, surprise losers at home to Cardiff Blues. The pressure on them to secure a home semi-final is beginning to lift.
“We were a bit lucky, I suppose, the fact that Munster felt they had to go for the win,” said Cullen. “The game should have been a draw. There wasn’t a huge amount between the teams.”
Instead of the two points which a draw should have brought, Munster left Dublin with a losing bonus point. Not much of a difference, perhaps, but in a season as competitive as this, it could mean a campaign of Champions Cup rugby next term or the possibility of a Challenge Cup trip to Siberia. Anthony Foley’s side finished the weekend in sixth place, still in a qualifying spot for Europe’s premier competition but only one ahead of Edinburgh and three adrift of a Pro12 play-off spot where Glasgow have a game in hand and a run-in that sees them face Zebre as their make-up game in Italy next weekend.
Munster have a significantly tougher challenge up next when they resume their campaign on April 16, a trip to the Galway Sportsground and a Connacht side ready to complete a league double over their southern neighbours.
No wonder Foley was ruing a game his players left behind and pondering the perennial dilemma of what might have been.
His side trailed 10-6 at the break, just before which Robin Copeland’s yellow card for ignoring a final team warning from referee Ian Davies over maul offences had allowed Johnny Sexton to score the opening try. But then he saw them reclaim the initiative when his own fly-half, Johnny Holland, scored a try before adding the extras with a superb kick from the left touchline.
Two penalties from man-of-the-match Sexton, though, edged the home side back in front and what followed was the source of Foley’s frustration. When Cian Healy was binned for a no arms tackle on Kilcoyne, the game was there for the taking but Munster repeatedly failed to grasp the opportunity. An overlap out wide was ignored as forwards took the ball round the corner one too many times and then having successfully manoeuvred themselves back towards the Leinster line, Kilcoyne made his fateful decision.
“I’d have taken a draw,” Foley said, “but I’d have also taken a win as well. It’s hard to have to take the loss but you trust players to make decisions, you back them, then you review them and then you look at what we can do better.
“There’ll be a few (video review) clips around that but there was a lot of good out there as well. To come up to Dublin and nearly win the game at the end, going away after the game we would have been very pleased but unfortunately it didn’t happen.
“There were plenty of opportunities there to win the game. We showed good patience at times for Johnny’s try and we probably just needed to be a small bit more patient at the time when Leinster gave away another penalty five metres from their line.”
Foley was under no illusions about what needs to happen next if not just this campaign but also the next are going to pan out well. Munster have three games against equally ambitious teams to rescue them both, at Connacht, in Cork against rivals Edinburgh, and then at Thomond Park when Scarlets come to close out the season.
“We’ve got to win our next game,” Foley said. “That’s the most important thing and it’s going to be a tough game in Galway, we know that. I don’t think anyone would be fooled if I said otherwise. We need to get back on track and win again.”
Z Kirchner; I Nacewa – captain, G Ringrose, B Te’o, D Kearney (F McFadden, 68); J Sexton (I Madigan, 78), E Reddan (L McGrath, 68); J McGrath (C Healy, 68), S Cronin (R Strauss, 51), T Furlong (M Ross, 63); D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony, 63); R Ruddock, J Murphy (J van der Flier, 51), J Heaslip.
Healy 76 mins.
S Zebo; A Conway (D Sweetnam, 75), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland (I Keatley, 57), C Murray; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne, 48), N Scannell (M Sherry, 48), S Archer (J Ryan, 73); D Ryan (R Copeland, 27), B Holland; D O’Callaghan (J O’Donoghue, 65), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander – captain.
Copeland 35-45 mins
Replacement not used:
Ian Davies (Wales).
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