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Leinster show all their champion quality to grind out epic inter-pro win over Munster

Johann van Graan’s side threw everything at the hosts, but their poor record at the Aviva Stadium continues.

James Lowe scored twice during an epic game.
James Lowe scored twice during an epic game.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster 30

Munster 22

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium 

AN EPIC INTER-PRO tussle in every sense of the word, as Leinster showed all of their champion quality to grind out a hard-fought victory over their southern rivals. And, in the process further enhance their supremacy in this marquee fixture.

Munster threw everything at the home side during a fiercely-competitive and attritional contest played out in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Aviva Stadium, but Leinster produced another Trojan defensive effort to record a fourth straight Guinness Pro14 victory.

James Lowe’s double, either side of the half-time interval, proved crucial in an absorbing arm-wrestle which saw the momentum fluctuate between the two sides at various intervals, only for Leinster’s clinical edge to prove the difference on the scoreboard.

For Munster, it is another disappointing defeat at Lansdowne Road, but there was plenty to like about this performance from Johann van Graan’s side, as they expended every last sinew to push the defending Pro14 and European champions all the way.

The visitors will reflect on a game-defining moment shortly after the break, when Keith Earls appeared to have cut Leinster’s advantage to just one point with an intercept-try, only for referee Ben Whitehouse to chalk it off for a deliberate knock-on in the build up.

From the resulting penalty, Leinster highlighted their ruthless streak again as Jamison Gibson-Park whipped a pass left and Lowe acrobatically did the rest in the far corner, to create daylight between the sides again.

Munster, to their credit, rebounded again and through the dominance of their forwards — led by the peerless Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander — set-up a thrilling finale, but Leinster are a force to be reckoned with and they weren’t prepared to roll over here.

Leo Cullen’s side — showing 11 changes from last week with the likes of Johnny Sexton, Scott Fardy and Garry Ringrose wrapped in cotton wool in the stand — go into next week’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps having built up a serious head of steam.

On the other hand, this is a third away defeat of the season for Munster. Having dominated possession and territory for large periods of this round six clash, they will wonder how they head back to Limerick with nothing to show for their efforts.

Ross Byrne was faultless in his display at 10, and duly earned the man-of-the-match award for his management of the game and 13 points off the tee, but it was the magic conjured by Lowe which dazzled the crowd and settled the high-intensity encounter.

Joey Carbery Joey Carbery in action against his former club. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster hit the front early in the piece, and stayed ahead.

The opening exchanges were frenetic and fractured, with Munster’s heavy artillery seeking to gain an early foothold up front, and lay down a marker of their intent.

After a series of reset scrums on this near touchline, Dan Goggin looked to pin Leinster back with a well-judged kick into the opposition 22, and while Gibson-Park appeared to have scrambled across to cover the danger, he spilled in the act of cleaning up and gave Munster prime attacking position.

Again, the Munster front five hammered away at scrum-time only to be repelled on three occasions and then the fit-again Jack McGrath announced his comeback with a pivotal turnover five metres from his own line, after Devin Toner had completed the initial tackle on Jean Kleyn.

From there, Lowe — in the only way James Lowe knows — took centre stage.

The Kiwi winger was heavily involved in both of Leinster’s opening tries as they showed their clinical edge at the other end, striking twice in quick succession to establish a clear advantage on the scoreboard.

Firstly, slick hands and interplay between Lowe and Dan Leavy down this near side created the space for the Ireland back row to burst into the Munster 22, as Leinster entered attacking mode for the first time to devastating effect.

Leavy linked with the supporting Gibson-Park and as Alby Mathewson and Andrew Conway desperately hauled the scrum-half down, he released his hands to offload back outside for Lowe, who appeared destined to score only for Keith Earls to track the hulking winger and force the knock-on in contact.

Lowe was adamant he was impeded, and with video recourse from his Television Match Official, Ben Whitehouse concluded that Earls was guilty of impeding illegally and Munster were hit with the double punishment of a penalty try and yellow card.

Leinster were up and running, and were quick to strike again. 

The ferocious battle at the breakdown was always going to play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of this contest, and after doing most of his work off the ball during the opening quarter, Seán O’Brien got the legs pumping with a big carry on halfway, before Stephen Archer was pinged on the ground.

Byrne found a smart touch on this near touchline, and from there a big James Ryan carry brought the hosts within striking distance, as Gibson-Park whipped a gorgeous pass to his left, where Lowe trampled over Mathewson and bullied his way through Niall Scannell, showing immense strength and dexterity to dot down.

Lowe’s 13th try in 17 Leinster appearances further enhances his remarkable strike rate in blue, and when Byrne tacked on the extras with a sweetly-struck conversion from a tight angle, the defending champions had emphatically created daylight between the sides.

James Lowe and Robbie Henshaw chasing the ball Lowe was immense throughout. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Van Graan spoke this week about the need for his side to stick to their game plan and, to their credit, Munster stuck at their task, with Carbery pulling the strings cleverly behind a pack that was getting through huge work on either side of the ball.  

In searching for an instant riposte, Goggin — continuing his excellent early-season form here — bulldozed Leavy in midfield, and with a penalty advantage coming, Carbery stitched it into the corner with a delightful kick in behind the blue shirts.

Sensing their ascendancy at the set-piece, Munster continued to push and probe and when another penalty came their way, Carbery opted for the corner again to set the wheels in motion for a textbook maul try, as the pod peeled off the back and Beirne crashed over the whitewash.

Carbery’s conversion attempt was off target, but the 22-year-old made no mistake eight minutes later after Leinster were stretched further by Munster’s sheer power, willingness to throw it wide and the excellent running of Goggin.

Mathewson sniped down the blindside and when Earls set Goggin away, Leinster were forced to scramble and did just enough on their own line to hold the Munster centre up, but the pressure kept coming.

From the resultant five-metre scrum, Stander picked from the back as the set-piece started to wheel, the number eight powering over despite the best efforts of Byrne for a TMO-awarded score.

After their opening salvo, Leinster found themselves on the back-foot as the visitors threw everything at them, but as is the mark of any champion side, Cullen’s side rallied to end the half on their terms.

Another huge defensive set, typified by Rory O’Loughlin’s thundering hit and turnover on Conway on halfway, had the crowd on their feet, and Byrne struck for two penalties before the break, after Scannell and then Beirne were pinged on the ground and at the lineout respectively.

Rhys Ruddock and Tadhg Beirne Beirne led the Munster fightback. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Leinster’s lead at half-time stood at 20-12 after a truly absorbing 40 minutes of rugby, and there was no let-up in the sheer intensity and physicality of proceedings on the restart, as the eastern province — and that man Lowe — hammered home their advantage. 

But Munster will reflect on the game’s defining moment and wonder, as Earls’ intercept-try was pulled back by Whitehouse for a penalty against Sammy Arnold, who was adjudged to have deliberately knocked on in the act of tackling Henshaw.

Instead of a Munster seven-pointer under the sticks as Earls pounced on the loose ball and streaked clear, Leinster kicked for the corner and after showing patience in building short phases on the opposition five, Gibson-Park flung a high skip pass over the stretching Earls, for Lowe to score his second of the game. 

It was a sublime piece of skill and strength from the Kiwi, as he initially had to check back to collect the pass and then hold off Kleyn to complete the finish with a swan dive in the corner. 

But Munster weren’t done yet, and neither was the drama.

As Cullen changed his front row, O’Brien’s high tackle allowed Carbery reduce the deficit with a sweet penalty and Munster launched a sustained period of possession and territory to reverse the complexion of the contest again. 

After a series of Munster scrums under the Leinster posts, the visitors eventually earned the reward for their perseverance as Mathewson sniped over for his first try in red, to make it a five-point game heading into the final 10 minutes.

Yet, Leinster — with their bench unloaded — maintained their tireless work-rate in defence and when Munster conceded a needless penalty from the restart, Byrne, even as he suffered from cramp, sent it straight and through.

Van Graan’s side dominated possession and territory — 35%-65% and 32%-68% — but Leinster’s strength in depth and well-drilled defensive unit kept them at arm’s length.  

That’s now 10 straight wins for Cullen’s men at the Aviva Stadium and, boy, did they earn it. A fixture that has lost its bite and meaning? Not a bit of it. 

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Penalty try, James Lowe [2]
Conversions: Ross Byrne [2 from 2]
Penalties: Ross Byrne [3 from 3] 

Munster scorers:

Tries: Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Alby Mathewson   
Conversions: Joey Carbery [2 from 3]
Penalties: Joey Carbery [1 from 1]

LEINSTER: 15. Rob Kearney, 14. Fergus McFadden, 13. Rory O’Loughlin, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. James Lowe, 10. Ross Byrne (Noel Reid 71′), 9. Jamison Gibson-Park (Luke McGrath 53′); 1. Jack McGrath (Cian Healy 41′), 2. James Tracy, 3. Michael Bent (Andrew Porter 46′), 4. Devin Toner, 5. James Ryan, 6. Rhys Ruddock (captain), 7. Dan Leavy, 8. Seán O’Brien (Josh van der Flier 62′)

Replacements not used: 16. Seán Cronin, 19. Mick Kearney, 23. Dave Kearney.

MUNSTER: 15. Andrew Conway, 14. Darren Sweetnam (JJ Hanrahan 70′), 13. Sammy Arnold (Rory Scannell 70′), 12. Dan Goggin, 11. Keith Earls, 10. Joey Carbery, 9. Alby Mathewson (Duncan Williams 74′); 1. Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin 52′), 2. Niall Scannell (Kevin O’Byrne 74′), 3. Stephen Archer (Ciaran Parker 74′), 4. Jean Kleyn (Billy Holland 70′), 5. Tadhg Beirne, 6. Peter O’Mahony (captain), 7. Tommy O’Donnell (Chris Cloete 46′), 8. CJ Stander.

Referee: Ben Whitehouse [WRU]

Attendance: 50,120. 

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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