A one-point win usually indicates a close contest, and Saturday’s clash between Leinster and Munster at the RDS was no different. Indeed, if the game had lasted an extra 10 minutes, Munster would probably have come away with a win, but Leinster once again displayed their champion quality by coming out on the right side of the fine margins.
Every facet of this match was a ‘game within a game’ in the sense that neither team dominated any phase of play for the full 80. Munster were in the ascendancy in the scrums until Andrew Porter was brought off the bench, they pinched a Leinster lineout through Peter O’Mahony, and had one outstanding catch-and-drive, but Leinster held them up on another occasion and effected a choke tackle when they were on their own try line.
The aerial battles, too were mixed. Munster targeted Joey Carbery under the high ball via from the outset, and they got a decent return from it. Carbery never seemed to be as assured in the backfield as Rob Kearney does, but then again, Keith Earls, who, like Kearney, is rock solid in these scenarios, dropped a straightforward catch that he would normally take in his sleep under practically no pressure.
Dominance in the collisions also changed hands numerous times throughout, and Munster definitely had the upper hand in this aspect as the game progressed. Early on, James Ryan and Jack Conan made metres after contact with ease, but then their influence lessened and the Leinster pack began struggling to put CJ Stander to ground. Leinster’s fatigue hindered their performance as the second half wore on, and although there was an element of them hanging on by their fingernails for the win, overall, they shaded this match in several areas.
The most frustrating thing that Munster will take from their review of this game is that they had enough chances to win it twice over. Their wide movements unsettled Leinster and pulled their defensive structure out of shape (Simon Zebo’s injections into the line in particular), and the tactic of throwing long skip passes out to the wing put the home team under serious pressure, with spot tackles from Isa Nacewa and James Lowe preventing what looked like certain tries.
For all the good work Munster did in terms of creating space in the wider channels, there were several errors from them which are hard to excuse. JJ Hanrahan and Ian Keatley threw a few inaccurate passes which have plagued their performances all season, and Rory Scannell’s skill execution was uncharacteristically inconsistent. Leinster, in contrast, were extremely clinical with the limited opportunities they got, and for anyone involved with or supporting Munster, this has to feel like a win they let slip through their fingers.
“What if…?” questions are the worst that a player can ask themselves in the aftermath of any loss, but Munster will rue the tries they left behind them for at least part of the off-season. Coming close but not close enough has been a recurring theme for them this year, and in many respects, falling agonisingly short is worse than being well-beaten. Even though a full pre-season with Johann can Graan and the return of their injured stars will work wonders for them, Munster can’t allow any self-doubts over a couple of narrow losses linger going into next season.
Like every other area of the game, the breakdown was hotly-contested by both sides. Dan Leavy’s absence had a noticeable impact on Leinster’s work on the deck (stellar back rower that he is, Jordi Murphy is better-suited to the 6/8 ball carrier/tackle machine role), but when it mattered, they produced game-changing turnovers that shifted momentum in their favour. Max Deegan’s steal at the death saved the day for his team, but fortune favours the bold, and Leinster wouldn’t have made it this far if they weren’t willing to take risks like this:
You can tell by the reactions from the Leinster players in the above example what it meant to them to pull a victory out of the fire yet again, and in a match where fatigue from their previous game affected them more and more as the clock ticked on, lifts like that are invaluable. The best teams find a means of getting themselves out of sticky situations regardless of the calibre of the opposition, and for two weeks in a row, Leinster have shown that they can do exactly that against the top clubs in Europe.
One Last Push
Leinster may have annihilated the Scarlets in the Champions Cup, but on the basis of the Llanelli side’s resounding win over Glasgow on Friday evening, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Winning games for long periods can be mentally exhausting, and you have to wonder how much Leinster have left in the tank after going toe-to-toe with the gargantuan packs of Montpellier (twice), Saracens and Racing 92, as well as keeping pace with high-tempo attacking teams such as Exeter and Glasgow.
Leinster obliterated the Scarlets up front from the get-go in the Aviva four weeks ago, but their forwards have expended a lot of energy since then and a second landslide win over the title holders of this tournament is unlikely. Doing the double has become increasingly difficult as players have become bigger and faster and the number of matches in a season rises every year, so it might be too soon in their development for Leinster to achieve it. Wayne Pivac and his assistant coaches and video analysts will have conducted an in-depth post-mortem of that demoralizing European semi-final defeat, and if they have learned from it, Leinster are going to have another heart-stopping knockout game to navigate their way through.