In front of 45,000 people at the Aviva stadium Leinster ignited their season by beating a Munster team under new New Zealand leadership. The Munster myth has always had close ties with rugby’s spiritual home ever since that famous win over the All Blacks in 1978. However the relationship has never been as tangible as it is now with both captain and coach of the province hailing from New Zealand. Leinster coach Joe Schmidt on the other hand, despite the win would have grimaced his way through this encounter as more of his front-liners were added to his injury list. Next Saturday, Leinster open their European campaign at home to Exeter. Schmidt knows that a defeat would seriously hamper them in their attempt to win three European titles in a row. His men have no doubt about the quality of next week’s opposition. Schmidt ensured this in the dressing-room after the game by immediately shifting the focus onto the next challenge by announcing Exeter’s 42 – 28 win over Conor O’Shea’s Harlequinns. Schmidt expects a more sustained display from his men next week.
The growth of the Munster Leinster confrontation has been the catalyst for Irish rugby’s European dominance. The fixture’s position in the rugby calendar – a week before European rugby kicks off – has been inspired.
The beginnings of a different rugby philosophy under Munster’s new coach, New Zealander, Rob Penney was evident in the first quarter as Munster went wide. An emphasis on execution and width will mean Munster are looking to cross the whitewash plenty of times this season. Captain Doug Howlett is no stranger to that feeling as the all time top try scorer for the All Blacks. Penny’s Canterbury teams have never shirked the grunt work so don’t expect himself and Anthony Foley to overlook it either.
This game was an important barometer for both provinces. The first quarter was a high-scoring affair. Within 22 minutes it was 17 – 11 to Leinster. They scored after just 4 minutes off a good set-piece platform. A grubber through from Brian O’Driscoll was gathered by Peter O’Mahony but all he could do was carry the ball over his own line and touch down as the chasers bore down on him. In the first scrum Leinster, anchored by Mike Ross, gained the upper hand and it remained that way for much of the match. Off this initial put-in, Leinster stormed down O’Gara’s channel. After a few recycles, Ricardt Strauss burrowed his way through but he was cut down just shy of the line by Donnacha Ryan. In the tackle Strauss manoeuvred his body like a contortionist and deftly hung onto the ball with outstretched fingertips just on the line. The crowd watched the replays amazed as the TMO confirmed that he had control and there was whitewash contact. The nugget-sized South African was in blistering form for the 60 minutes he was on the pitch. In the absence of Sean O’Brien he proved pivotal in providing the ballast needed up front notching up the yards with numerous carries. Surely Declan Kidney must be looking at starting him against the Springboks in the November Internationals? He left his native country because of the plethora of test hookers available to South African selectors. He has a point to prove against the Boks so let him scrum down against his namesake for his Irish debut ; surely his Leinster performances deserve such recognition.
Munster’s response was immediate. Continuously throughout this game they sent re-starts up the middle and flooded Ian Madigan’s channel. It worked for them as they were able to gain possession and momentum. O’Mahony, who has been entrusted with the duties of pack leader, was ever present as he finished off a move created by the quick take and give of centre Casey Lualala.
Following that try O’Gara kicked two penalties to Sexton’s one as Munster crept ahead. However Leinster soon asserted themselves as their forwards really got into the game. Eoin Reddan, in his first game back from injury, gave his team the impetus as he marshalled his pack from breakdown to breakdown and fired off crisp passes to ball-carriers coming at pace. He varied the point of attack switching the play to the blindside at times so as to give his backs the desired space. On the front foot his swift delivery allowed Leinster to go through a 15 phase passage that culminated in Madigan stepping inside two defenders and reaching for the try-line; he knows where that line is. Up to this point this season Leinster simply haven’t gone through the phases in this fashion. The first twenty minutes promised a high-scoring thriller but to the crowd’s dismay the referee simply didn’t allow the game to flourish. He started to penalise both teams at the breakdown and the game became disjointed. The sides traded penalties up to half-time. The score was 20 – 14 to Leinster.
After the break Leinster pressure told as they moved away on the scoreboard. Quick hands from Reddan, Sexton and a fizzing pass from Madigan gave O’Driscoll the space on the left wing that he needed to touch down. Other players might have been bundled into touch by Denis Hurley’s quality cover tackle but O’Driscoll is different. By 55 minutes Leinster were dominating but they failed to capitalise on the sin-binning of Damien Varley and the score remained 30 – 14. After withstanding the Leinster pressure without conceding the bonus point fourth try, Munster came back at them with a renewed vigour in search of the win or at the very least a losing bonus point. They were marshalled by O’Gara’s heir apparent Ian Keatley who is pushing for inclusion. Keatley with Conor Murray at 9 managed to direct Munster back into the game. The probing told when Murray dotted down at the side of a ruck where Leinster were bereft of pillars or cover. From a following penalty Munster spurned a shot at goal opting instead for the corner. They were unable to score and never got within one score. This meant that the losing bonus point escaped them as they left the capital empty handed. Leinster finished the game with a patch-work outfit – the injury list continues to mount for Schmidt – but they were the sharper team in attack and they put in a good defensive shift in the last twenty minutes to ensure that Munster hadn’t a chance of stealing it at the end.
This result will somewhat ease Schmidt’s early season anxiety but his injury list will keep him on edge this week and Saturday’s fixture will determine whether that anxiety is assuaged or not. This season is up and running.