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Van Graan lauds his side's discipline as Munster end 2018 unbeaten at Thomond

The southern province came out the right side of a fractious and fragmented affair against Leinster.

Ryan Bailey reports from Thomond Park

IT WASN’T ALL that pretty, nor was it the highest quality incarnation of this fierce rivalry, but it was exactly what Munster needed to give their season a timely lift ahead of a defining block of games.

The southern province’s need was greater here, and it showed.

Keith Earls celebrates after scoring a try with Andrew Conway, Tyler Bleyendaa and Mike Haley Munster earned a precious win this evening. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Backed by a packed festive crowd, Johann van Graan’s side produced a much-improved performance to end their four-game losing streak at the hands of Leinster and avoid three consecutive defeats for the first time since 2015.

They were given a helping hand by Leinster’s awful discipline, as the defending European champions lacked their usual composure in the midst of a frenetic and full-blooded derby, with Leo Cullen’s side playing with 13 men for seven first-half minutes, and 14 men for more than 50 minutes.

Both Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong were sin-binned during a fractious and fragmented first half in Limerick, before James Lowe saw red for a dangerous and reckless tackle on Andrew Conway, which saw the Munster winger land head-first after going up to contest a clearing box-kick.

Munster were ahead on the scoreboard at that stage thanks to Chris Cloete’s opening try, before Joey Carbery — playing against his former club — kicked 16 points to help the southern province to a precious win which lifts them back into second in Conference A.

Leinster responded after the break and James Tracy’s maul try reduced the deficit to six points at one juncture, but the hosts were obdurate in defence with man of the match Tadhg Beirne, Fineen Wycherley and CJ Stander all immense throughout.

“I thought it was a very tough game of rugby,” Van Graan said afterwards.

“Two of Ireland’s provinces going at each other for 80 minutes. Firstly, very happy with the win. Also, want to give credit to the opponents. Thought they fought to the last play of the game. I thought we kept our cool for the third week in a row. I thought our discipline was excellent and at crucial times we used opportunities and very happy with the win.”

The 26-17 win is Munster’s first over their eastern rivals in two seasons, and also ensures they finish the calendar year unbeaten at their Thomond Park fortress, with a capacity crowd of over 26,000 creating a raucous atmosphere under the lights.

On the performance of referee Frank Murphy, the former Munster player, Van Graan added that he was pleased with how his side ‘stuck to their principles’ as several flashpoints developed in the first half.

“I think we really stayed disciplined,” he continued.

“I thought the referee was in a very difficult position. A sell-out Thomond Park and you want 15 versus 15. I thought one or two of the earlier decisions could have gone maybe higher but all credit to the referee, I thought he kept his cool and I think it was four massive incidents in the first half and I thought eventually something had to give.

“I think it’s important, it doesn’t matter which colour is the jersey, I think player safety and player welfare is very important. You know, we lost a player [Chris Cloete] tonight out of a game and our opponents [Furlong] lost it for only 10 minutes. All we can ask for is consistency like I’ve been asking for the last few weeks. I was really pleased about our discipline.”

Joey Carbery kicks at goal Carbery kicked 16 points. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Furlong was sin-binned for catching Cloete high — albeit accidentally — when the flanker had been held up in the tackle by Tracy, and the South African was stretchered off to be replaced in the Munster back row by Arno Botha.

Van Graan reported that Cloete ‘had a smile on his face’ in the dressing room afterwards, but Munster will have to wait for scans to determine if the neck injury is as serious as was first feared when he was carted off the pitch after a lengthy period of treatment. 

Even with the loss of Cloete and absence of Peter O’Mahony, Munster’s back row did a brilliant job at the breakdown and Beirne was deservedly named man of the match for his performance, while Wycherley’s early hit on Johnny Sexton set the tone.

“I thought Fineen was excellent over the past few weeks,” Van Graan said of the young blindside. “He’s actually a lock. I gave him an opportunity against the Cheetahs as a blindside flanker and he impressed me so much throughout the last year.

“When I came he was still with the academy. I backed him for this game. Peter wasn’t available. Played Fineen blindside flanker against the European and Pro14 champions and I thought he was excellent tonight. Another 80-minute performance.

He really stood up. That’s brilliant for the club to show that our youth system works. He’s a guy, for the last six months who has just put his head down and he worked. It paid off tonight and I’m really glad for him.

Another player to receive praise from the head coach was Carbery, who was faultless off the tee after a difficult afternoon in Castres last time out — form which bodes well for next week’s visit to Connacht, and then the Heinken Champions Cup pool games against Gloucester and Exeter.

“I think Joey showed some real mental strength tonight. Missed one or two, two weeks ago. I thought he was excellent with his goal-kicking tonight. Obviously, for him personally, playing against his former team at a sold-out Thomond Park was a big moment.

“Very happy that he kicked it over and you need a quality goal kicker to beat the best and I thought he did that excellent tonight.” 

Leo Cullen, meanwhile, found it hard to extract positives from his side’s performance, after the 32nd-minute dismissal of Lowe irrevocably changed the integrity of the contest, but the Leinster head coach was able to take heart from the spirit the visitors showed in the second half. 

Leinster were pushing for a route back into the game in the final quarter when Keith Earls picked off Ciaran Frawley’s pass to scorch clear for an intercept try, which settled the game in Munster’s favour. 

“We lost the game, so it is difficult,” Cullen said afterwards, when asked what positives, if any, he could reflect on during the journey back to Dublin.

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It is just Leinster’s third defeat of the season and first in eight outings, as their winning run comes to an end ahead of next week’s inter-pro against Ulster at the RDS and the crunch Champions Cup clash with Toulouse in January. 

They do, however, remain 16 points clear at the top of Conference B.

Conor Murray and Johnathan Sexton after the game Murray and Sexton shake hands at full-time. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“When you break apart the performance, the first half hour our discipline is clearly not good enough,” Cullen added.

“From that point on, we do a lot of good things and we stick in the game well. So, that’s really pleasing. I thought the desire and the spirit shown by the players is pleasing.

“Some younger players, we wanted to bring them off the bench to give them that exposure and I thought they handled things reasonably well.

“It is pleasing that we were able to shut Munster out for the majority of the game when we’re a man down. At one point we were down to 13.

“So, how the players dug in and adapted because in many ways when you’re down to 14 men the game plan that you planned all week goes out the window to a certain extent.

“Even losing Dave Kearney in the warm-up, Noel [Reid] stepping in, the way we had to rejig with Rory [O'Loughlin] on the wing… it was a day where we had to adapt.

“It wasn’t always perfect, but the players dug in for each other and that was the most pleasing part.” 

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a memorable year for Irish rugby.

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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