Sexton calls shots for clinical Blues
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