The bookmakers lead us to believe that this game would be a comfortable home victory for Leinster, but Munster proved that they have the knack of knock out rugby and nearly stole it at the end.
Leinster 16 - 15 Munster
The game swung from side to side with Leinster managing to win without the advantage in possession or territory. They tried to play more in the Munster half during the second period but kept letting the men in red out.
Leinster were able to steal an early try, James Lowe jinking around Zebo, and retaining his balance just enough to get a sublime offload to Jack Conan. They looked reasonably comfortable with this lead in the first half, however, they let far too many visits to the opposition twenty two pass without adding to their score.
Munster did not settle in the first half, messing up a lot of promising attacks, but they exploded back onto the pitch after half time to score a fantastic try, despite having a man in the bin.
The game was tidal in nature, both teams regaining dominance briefly, like a wave attacking the shore, before receding and having to defend for their lives. Munster had another purple patch between 60 and 70 minutes and the volume grew as the home fans sensed an upset. But Leinster regained control and managed to get a penalty from a scrum to push them eight points clear.
That should have been the match. Indeed most of the Leinster fans were turning to each other with knowing smiles and already planning where to meet before the final next week. The men in red had different idea of how this epic battle was going to finish. They had in mind a fairy tale ending for their departing hero, Simon Zebo.
The see-saw nature of this game was played out in the many one-on-one battles on the pitch. None more representative than Zebo versus Lowe. Check out the player statistics between these two on ESPN. They are incredibly close.
The offensive stats look great. Three clean breaks each, five defenders beaten each, and two offloads each. Zebo made more meters, but the Lowe's gains lead to the first try, cutting through Zebo in the process. To my mind Zebo ran two laterally at times, trying to find gaps in the line. I can just hear my school’s coach in the back of my mind yelling “straighten up”.
Neck and neck in offensive stats, perhaps, but Lowe edged the defensive ones. Each conceded two turnovers and missed two tackles. Lowe made six to Zebos one tackle according to the statistics. Neither men are known for their defensive capabilities. Maybe this is just a symptom of the additional possession Munster had, but those who criticise Lowe for his defense should note that he has made some improvements recently.
One further stat to review is the number of passes made. Leinster fans watching the Munster man play for Ireland often bemoan that Zebo never passes. But yesterday in the RDS at his best position, full back, he made seventeen passes.
Admittedly a few went astray, but only the two scrum halves made more passes. He was Munster’s play maker and they will miss him next year, even though Ireland appear to be coping without him since his decision enforced his being dropped from the squad.
Some of the other battles were equally compelling. Murray and McGrath both played well with the Munster man his usual composed self. He had his hands on the ball more often due to his team’s domination of the possession, but McGrath impressed and held his own.
Ross Byrne had a solid game; he will never be able to fill the boots left by Sexton’s absence, but he played above himself. He broke the defensive line uncharacteristically on a couple of occasions and was dependable in ball distribution. His opponent JJ Hanrahan was solid if not remarkable, and seemed to leave all the play making to Zebo.
The forwards’s battle was a back and forth affair. Neither team had it all their own way in the line out, O’Mahony in particular a thorn in Leinster’s side. The scrum was all about Munster in the first half, however, Cian Healy’s presence in the second half turned that around.
Perhaps the most interesting battle in the forwards was between the number eights. Jack Conan will be delighted with his try, chasing the amazing break by Lowe and taking advantage of his brilliant offload.
He had a tough day at the office otherwise, with CJ Stander nicking a few balls from him at the breakdown. The Munster man carried more, but often into traffic and never cleanly breaking through.
I don’t think Conan did enough to worry Stander about the starting position for the upcoming Irish tour of Australia, but he is an improving player and will step up sooner of later. If he doesn’t then he might be too late; there is plenty of talent being produced in Leinster’s youth programme at the moment.
Other players of note were Earls and Larmour. They both look electric with the ball in hand. The man in red finished his try like a pro. Was he exposed a bit defensively? Perhaps. I still think he’ll start in Australia ahead of Larmour.
James Ryan’s amazing run of form continues. One more game will land Leinster the double, something we’ve been craving since the first Heineken Cup victory, as it was called back then. The Scarlets are coming to town next week. Bring it on.