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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Close encounter
Leinster have just enough class as injury-hit Munster push them all the way
35-year-old Johnny Sexton was integral to the home side’s win as Irish rugby returned.

Leinster 27

Munster 25

IT WAS EERIE without fans in the stadium and there were some of signs of rust, but in the end we got a superb game as Irish rugby got back up and running.

Leinster were pushed extremely hard but Leo Cullen’s men had just enough class to get them over the line against a Munster team who refused to cave in when an injury toll severely dented their chances.

cian-healy-scores-a-try Billy Stickland / INPHO Leinster squeezed over the line. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Johann van Graan’s men lost loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne – himself a late injury replacement for James Cronin – and debutant Springbok lock RG Snyman after just seven minutes, while Snyman’s replacement – Jean Kleyn – was forced off in the second half.

Munster played the final quarter with only seven forwards as centre Rory Scannell replaced Kleyn but they very nearly pulled off a come-from-behind victory.

As it is, the southern province have to settle for a bonus-point defeat that ends their chances of avoiding Leinster in the semi-finals of the Guinness Pro14, following Conference B rivals Edinburgh’s win over Glasgow earlier.

Instead, Munster now know a win against Connacht next weekend will secure them a semi-final against already-confirmed Conference A winners Leinster in two weekends’ time. Van Graan’s men will have to get through the Connacht fixture next weekend, of course, and the injury toll won’t help in that regard.

Leinster had the moments of brilliance that were just enough in a thrilling encounter in Dublin. Fittingly, a Johnny Sexton conversion was the different between the teams and the 35-year-old delivered a strong performance – including 100% off the tee – that showed he has plenty of quality left despite his advancing years.

He was integral to James Lowe’s second-half try, while a brilliant Robbie Henshaw grubber kick teed up Garry Ringrose’s important score before half-time and Cian Healy also dotted down at the back of a first-half maul.

Ireland wing Andrew Conway finished two tries for Munster while his international team-mate Keith Earls took their other score very sharply.

chris-farrell-is-tackled-by-jack-conan Dan Sheridan / INPHO Chris Farrell was man of the match. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Outside centre Chris Farrell was man of the match as his partnership with Springbok centre Damian de Allende got off to a promising start, while out-half JJ Hanrahan was good in the number 10 shirt and kicked well off the tee, only missing an agonising late conversion attempt that might have levelled the game.

If this is a sign of the quality to come over the next few weeks, Irish rugby fans are in for a treat.

Snyman impressed from the off, making a good tackle on kick chase and then stealing a Leinster lineout, but he was injured in the process of that lineout win as he landed awkwardly to ground and was forced to limp off, Kilcoyne going at the same time.

Despite the setback, Munster drew first blood as a superb counter-ruck penalty earned by centre pairing de Allende and Farrell allowed them to kick down the right to within 10 metres, where their maul won another penalty and they went again from five metres out.

An extended sequence of battering carries saw Leinster narrowed up to breaking point and simple passing from Conor Murray and Hanrahan allowed Conway to cross untouched to the left of the posts, with Hanrahan adding the extras for 0-7.

It was a scything break from Garry Ringrose that brought Leinster back into the game, the outside centre switching under Sexton – who was hammered by de Allende just after passing – and cutting through the Munster defence in the middle of the pitch.

The southern province infringed at the breakdown in their scramble to recover, with Sexton kicking the penalty down the left touchline, where the Leinster mauled fired impressively from 10 metres out and ended with Healy dotting down.

johnny-sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sexton was in fine form for Leinster. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton’s conversion levelled the game and then he exchanged penalties with Hanrahan, the Munster man slotting three points after a big turnover penalty from CJ Stander and Sexton responding soon after when Stephen Archer and Stander went off their feet jackaling at the breakdown. 

Another muscular breakdown turnover from Stander resulted in Hanrahan slotting an excellent 36th-minute penalty from over 35 metres out and to the right of the posts but, typically, Leinster found a way to take the lead for the first time just before the break.

Munster conceded a defensive maul penalty to allow Leinster back into the left corner and though it initially looked like O’Mahony had stolen the lineout, the home side recovered the ball and began to batter at the Munster tryline.

The ball was moved to Henshaw a couple of metres out and when it looked like he would tuck and carry again, the Ireland international stroked a delightful and delicate grubber kick in behind the Munster defence for Ringrose to race onto. Sexton’s conversion gave Leinster a 17-13 that would have sickened van Graan and co. 

Leinster missed a chance to extend that lead soon after the interval when a big break from Luke McGrath, fending Tommy O’Donnell as he arced off a scrum in his own half, was followed by Sexton cleverly kicking behind Munster, where Conway fumbled the ball behind his own tryline and the visitors had to dot down.

Leinster couldn’t convert the five-metre scrum chance, though, as Jack Conan and Scott Fardy were pinged for going off their feet at the breakdown.

An excellent choke tackle from Sexton and the tireless Josh van der Flier gave Leinster new momentum, however, as they turned over Munster’s Farrell. From the ensuing attack, the out-half delivered a moment of quality down the left-hand side, drawing in Farrell and then cleverly delaying his pass in behind Conway as the wing rushed up.

james-lowe-scores-a-try Bryan Keane / INPHO James Lowe scores for Leinster. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton found the impressive Ryan Baird galloping into space and the second row calmly drew last defender Shane Daly to free Lowe to score wide on he left, from where Sexton converted superbly for a 24-13 lead.

Munster’s injury toll rose again as they lost Kleyn – forcing them into bringing on centre Scannell and play the remaining 23 minutes with only seven forwards – but to their credit, they continued to fight.

Just after Leinster’s Dave Kearney had pulled his hamstring, replacement second row Devin Toner was sin-binned for taking out Stander in the air at a lineout, allowing Munster access back into their half.

More of the close-range battering followed but this time Hanrahan looked up and threw a pass to Earls on the left touchline, where the 32-year-old hammered into final defender Luke McGrath and then stretched out his left hand to finish a TMO-confirmed try. Hanrahan’s touchline conversion was superb and suddenly Munster sensed a chance.

Replacement out-half Ross Byrne, on for Sexton, extended Leinster’s lead back out to 27-20 soon after but Munster refused to cave in. 

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They produced perhaps their best attacking passage of the entire game for Conway’s second try with just over six minutes left, sweeping the ball right through Hanrahan and fullback Daly for the wing to finish through Doris’ despairing tackle attempt.

Unfortunately for Munster, Hanrahan’s conversion attempt from out on the right was just wide and they trailed by a two-point margin they just couldn’t make up in the dying minutes. 

Instead, they opted to kick the ball out of play with time up.

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Cian Healy, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1], Ross Byrne [1 from 1]

Munster scorers:

Tries: Andrew Conway [2], Keith Earls

Conversions: JJ Hanrahan [2 from 3]

Penalties: JJ Hanrahan [2 from 2]

LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Dave Kearney (Jamison Gibson-Park ’62), Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain) (Ross Byrne ’60), Luke McGrath (Max Deegan ’68); Cian Healy (Ed Byrne ’57), Ronan Kelleher (Sean Cronin ’59), Andrew Porter (Michael Bent ’59); Ryan Baird, Scott Fardy (Devin Toner ’54 – yellow card ’63); Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier (Will Connors ’55), Jack Conan. 

MUNSTER: Shane Daly; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls;  JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray (Craig Casey ’71); Dave Kilcoyne (Jeremy Loughman ’7), Niall Scannell (Rhys Marshall ’54), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’54); RG Snyman (Jean Kleyn ’7 (Rory Scannell ’57)), Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (captain), Tommy O’Donnell (Chris Cloete ’49), CJ Stander.

Replacements: Matt Gallagher.

Referee: Andrew Brace.  

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