Sex­ton calls shots for clin­i­cal Blues

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

WITH 20 min­utes to go at a very well-at­tended Aviva Sta­dium yes­ter­day, JJ Han­ra­han dinked a penalty into touch with a view to his for­wards fin­ish­ing the job. The gap stood at 11 points, and if Mun­ster were go­ing to close it then this plat­form was tai­lor-made. How many mauled tries had they scored last sea­son? A lot. So they got to work.

Af­ter a fair amount of grunt­ing ref­eree Ben White­house gave the scrum to Le­in­ster, from which they ex­ited per­fectly. We didn’t ex­pect to see red shirts that far from their own line again.

“You’ve got to give your­self a shot and take chances like that,” Peter O’Ma­hony said af­ter­wards. “And we didn’t.”

As it hap­pened they did ven­ture back — for a fine fin­ish from the classy Keith Earls, but with just over a minute on the clock it was of no con­se­quence aside from the wel­come bonus point. And that hadn’t been their tar­get when they ran out in front of 46,374 some 100 min­utes ear­lier.

Stum­bling at the last hur­dle be­fore Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion is not a new ex­pe­ri­ence for Mun­ster just as beat­ing this op­po­si­tion at this venue has be­come a rit­ual for Le­in­ster. That’s 10 of the last 11 go­ing the way of the home team. And the six-point gap didn’t re­flect how much bet­ter they had been.

“We felt like we got a pretty good first half de­spite 14-7,” said Johnny Sex­ton, man of the match and now Le­in­ster’s record points scorer (1,231). “We didn’t take our op­por­tu­ni­ties and our mis­take gave them seven points. We drew en­cour­age­ment from our de­fence when we weren’t giv­ing them silly penal­ties like we did in the last 20 min­utes.”

That penalty count looked pretty lop­sided at the break, 7-1 in Le­in­ster’s favour, and while it had come in to 11-8 by the fin­ish it didn’t swing any­thing sig­nif­i­cant Mun­ster’s way. They were beaten all ends up.

The se­lec­tion is­sue at 10, with three out­halves start­ing the game be­tween 10, 12 and 15, may well have gone the way of Han­ra­han for Cas­tres next Sun­day. If so then it would al­low Rassie Eras­mus to put the ex­cel­lent An­drew Con­way at 15 with Earls and Alex Woot­ton on the wings. Given good ball that’s a well-above-av­er­age back three.

Le­in­ster saw to it here how­ever that the qual­ity of that ball wasn’t great. In what was an en­ter­tain­ing game, part of the fas­ci­na­tion was in watch­ing play­ers try­ing not to be buried far be­hind their own gain line. Both de­fences put lots of speed on their op­er­a­tion. Le­in­ster’s play­ers are more skil­ful — Joey Car­bery is com­fort­ably the leader in that lit­tle league — and coped bet­ter with the pres­sure.

Their set-piece was good, but mostly they just looked what they are: a bet­ter all-round side. And the qual­ity of their two first-half tries — both from Rory O’Lough­lin — re­flected that.

His first was a bril­liant in­di­vid­ual ef­fort, run­ning a hard line into con­tact and then spin­ning out again be­fore keep­ing his feet through an­other chal­lenge and reach­ing to score. Had you looked at snap- shot of the scene from be­hind the goal, be­fore he re­ceived the ball, you wouldn’t have given him a prayer of scor­ing.

His sec­ond was a run-in, a handy fin­ish to a lovely piece of play to un­lock the Mun­ster de­fence. With their de­fence in ham­mer mode Mun­ster were giv­ing Le­in­ster pre­cious lit­tle. The at­tack­ing side owed a fair bit to Adam Byrne for his sec­ond great fetch in the air to keep them in pos­ses­sion of the ball — cre­at­ing an aerial mis­match be­tween him­self and Keith Earls had been a fea­ture of Le­in­ster’s game — but it was Sex­ton who made the dif­fer­ence.

Call­ing the per­fect play at ex­actly right time he wrapped Tadhg Fur­long and then went out the back of Scott Fardy to put Car­bery free in the 22. With Con­way cov­er­ing hard, Car­bery took the safe op­tion and put O’Lough­lin over. It was top-qual­ity stuff.

That Mun­ster got any­thing in that pe­riod was down to Keat­ley’s op­por­tunism when Rob­bie Hen­shaw fum­bled in mid­field un­der pres­sure and the out­half raced 40 me­tres to score. Oth­er­wise the clos­est they came had been ear­lier in the day when Earls had a try ruled out — Sex­ton looked like he was go­ing to drag Mr White­house over the TMO by the scruff of the neck — for a for­ward pass from Chris Far­rell.

Af­ter the break Sex­ton tacked on an­other three be­fore a fine fin­ish from Earls was the per­fect add-on to a Tommy O’Don­nell run that had started deep in his own half. But there­after Sex­ton stuck over an­other two shots as Mun­ster strug­gled to get any mean­ing­ful plat­form with sight of the Le­in­ster sticks.

When Earls did get over at the end it did, in the­ory, open the door to last-gasp es­cape, at which point Le­in­ster put on a full-court press and the Reds were left try­ing to work their way out from in and around their own goal line. Fi­nally, re­place­ment Dun­can Williams ac­cepted the in­evitable and hoofed the ball out of play be­fore even the bonus point was taken away.

“As you can see we’re try­ing hard — we’re try­ing as hard as we can,” O’Ma­hony said. “But you have to give your­self a chance and we didn’t to­day. We found our­selves in our own ter­ri­tory try­ing to exit.”

The gates were locked.

Scor­ers – Le­in­ster: R O’Lough­lin 2 tries; J Sex­ton 3 pens, 2 cons. Mun­ster: K Earls 2 tries; I Keat­ley try, con.

Le­in­ster: J Car­bery; A Byrne, R O’Lough­lin, R Hen­shaw, B Daly (F McFad­den 73); J Sex­ton (capt) (R Byrne 77), L McGrath (J Gib­son-Park 62); J McGrath (C Healy 49), J Tracy (S Cronin 49), T Fur­long (M Bent 49), D Toner, S Fardy (R Molony 69), R Rud­dock (J Mur­phy 62), J Co­nan, J van der Flier (R Rud­dock 72, blood).

Mun­ster: JJ Han­ra­han; A Con­way, C Far­rell, T Bleyen­daal (R Scan­nell 66), K Earls; I Keat­ley (A Woot­ton 46), C Mur­ray (D Williams 73); D Kil­coyne (L O’Con­nor 67)a, N Scan­nell (yc 21-31; R Mar­shall 67)), J Ryan (S Archer 46), R Copeland (M Flana­gan 69), B Hol­land, P O’Ma­hony (capt), CJ Stander, T O’Don­nell (R Mar­shall 29-31 blood; J O’Donoghue 64).

Ref­eree: Ben White­house (Wales)

Keith Earls of Mun­ster scores his side’s sec­ond try de­spite a last-ditch tackle by Adam Byrne at the Aviva Sta­dium yes­ter­day. Photo: Bren­dan Mo­ran

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