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The return of Irish rugby was better than any of us could have hoped for

Leinster and Munster will reflect on plenty of ups and downs after Leo Cullen’s team edged it.
Aug 23rd 2020, 6:00 AM 36,447 36

Updated Aug 23rd 2020, 12:00 PM

THE STAR ATTRACTIONS for Munster had very different days, with Damian de Allende going the full 80 minutes and delivering an aggressive performance in which his new centre partnership with man of the match Chris Farrell showed promise.

The Springboks centre gave up a cheap penalty for a late tackle on Johnny Sexton in the first half but there was much to like in his display during Munster’s 27-25 defeat, from excellent decoy lines to ferocious counter-rucking.

Unfortunately, RG Snyman barely got to make his Munster debut, lasting only seven minutes before landing awkwardly and damaging his knee. That the injury came immediately after Snyman had stolen a Leinster lineout was all the more frustrating – a sign of his potential impact followed swiftly by his game being ended.

damian-de-allende-is-tackled-by-josh-van-der-flier Damian de Allende had a good game for Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Snyman will have a scan on what looks like a “pretty serious” knee injury and he may well be sidelined in the weeks to come.

This was a game of ups and downs for Munster, ending very much with the latter as energetic replacement scrum-half Craig Casey nudged the ball into touch inside his own 22 as his side accepted the one match point.

“It was curious to see Munster taking a losing bonus point at the end, I thought they might have taken a gamble to run out again,” said Leinster boss Leo Cullen afterwards before talking through the Conference B scenario that means Munster cannot now catch Edinburgh but haven’t confirmed their Pro14 semi-final spot just yet.

A win over Connacht next weekend would guarantee another meeting with Leinster in that final-four clash, so the task ahead of Munster is very clear. They could also qualify without a win depending on how third-placed Scarlets go away to Dragons next weekend, but Johann van Graan’s men will be very keen not to allow that fixture into it.

The positives were plentiful last night too. With Conor Murray in excellent form, Munster won the aerial battle under his box kicks. Their lineout caused Leinster problems, ensuring a 50% return for the home side and also drawing penalty offences that led up to Devin Toner’s second-half yellow card.

There were green shoots in attack for Munster, with the finishing touches for Keith Earls’ try and Andrew Conway’s second showing willingness to move the ball even in the opposition 22. Conway’s first was about the more traditional grinding play as they battered away for over two minutes to score on 21st phase.

The injury toll looks severe – with Dave Kilcoyne in a moon boot post-game for his ankle problem, Jean Kleyn forced off with a nasty-looking neck injury, and Snyman potentially in trouble, all adding to James Cronin pulling out of the game beforehand with a groin issue.

conor-murray-at-the-base-of-a-ruck Conor Murray was in excellent form. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

But there is plenty for Munster to reflect optimistically after they overcame the seventh-minute losses of Snyman and Kilcoyne – then having to play the closing 23 minutes of the game with only seven forwards – to leave themselves within a conversion of drawing.

As for Leinster, there was much to like and plenty to work on too, as Leo Cullen acknowledged afterwards. His chief frustration was his team’s failure to pull clear in the closing 25 minutes after James Lowe’s try had put them into a 24-13 lead.

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The penalty count was an issue as they conceded 17 to Munster’s nine and lost Toner to the sin bin for a 10-minute spell that saw the southern province score 12 points and very nearly level the game only for JJ Hanrahan’s conversion effort to go narrowly wide. 

The tireless CJ Stander won four turnover penalties against them at the breakdown and it seemed Leinster were frustrated with referee Andrew Brace’s interpretation around that area, with Johnny Sexton calling it “chaos” and Cullen commenting, “There’s a few things where you’re like, ‘We need to figure out what the referee is seeing here.’”

Fixing the struggles to deal with Murray’s box kicks will also be high on Leinster and Jordan Larmour’s to-do lists, with Cullen pointing out that “some of the teams we will play against, Saracens [their Champions Cup quarter-final opposition next month], will box kick a lot we know, so we need to get better at protecting the catcher and do a better job generally there.”

Dave Kearney’s unfortunate hamstring injury was another negative – shifting Larmour to the wing and bringing Rob Kearney in at fullback for the possible semi-final against Munster would seem quite likely as a result - while the aforementioned stuttering lineout will be a big focus.

Yet there were moments of real champion class. Robbie Henshaw’s grubber kick assist for Garry Ringrose’s try just before half-time was an unexpected delight, delicately-executed and intelligently-conceived to use penalty advantage to maximum effect.

If Munster’s new centre combination showed promise, the Leinster pair reminded us of their quality, with Ringrose probably the best player on the pitch.

Sexton’s beautiful playmaking for the Lowe try was a pleasure to watch, with Ryan Baird’s work-rate rewarded as he accepted Sexton’s perceptively-delayed pass and then sent the left wing away down the touchline after the lock drew in the final defender.

johnny-sexton-is-tackled-by-tommy-odonnell-and-billy-holland Sexton had several moments of real class. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There was physicality from Josh van der Flier and the back row, as well as scything linebreaks from Luke McGrath and Ringrose, but Leinster never quite hit a flow state as the game’s momentum swung to and fro between the teams.

That was what made it such a brilliant spectacle for the Irish rugby-supporting public who had been starved for over five months. This was far from feeling like a pre-season game and we even got something of a grandstand finish as Munster looked for a winner until Toner swooped to intercept Hanrahan’s inside pass.

There were errors and bad decisions, of course, as well as injury disappointments along the way, but this was as good a return for Irish rugby as anyone could have hoped for. These certainly didn’t look like teams who hadn’t played since February.

Maybe Munster would have been better off avoiding Leinster in the semi-finals by beating them last night but they would likely have had to overcome them to win the Pro14 either way.

Van Graan’s men will show Connacht all the respect they deserve next weekend but the reality is that all of us are already hoping to see Munster and Leinster go at it again. It would obviously be better for everyone with supporters present but this wasn’t bad for starters.

The likelihood is that Cullen’s side will be better next time around but Peter O’Mahony and co. would relish another crack off them. 

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Murray Kinsella

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