When it all finished, Ross Byrne casually kicking the ball into the old RDS grandstand to prompt the final whistle of a contest that was ending 16-6, there was no Leinster whooping and hollering, no mad celebrations, just a series of knowing nods and congratulatory handshakes.
Leo Cullen’s Blues were deserving Guinness PRO14 champions yet again for an unprecedented fourth time on the bounce and they didn’t need to shout it from the D4 rooftops. Contrast that low-key reaction, though, that satisfied look of another job well done with the abject misery of the red-shirted opposition.
It’s now ten years and counting since Munster last earned the right to lift a trophy, Tony McGahan’s side defeating Leinster in Limerick on the same May 2011 Saturday that Lionel Messi delivered a swashbuckling performance on the Wembley turf to leave Manchester United battered and bruised in a Champions League football final.
The world was a far more innocent place back then, a concern over the safety of cucumbers about the height of the health anxieties affecting the discourse in Ireland at the time rather than any pandemic.
Aside from the close-everything-down mentality providing the backdrop to this particular final a decade later behind close doors at the RDS, there was also the pertinent issue of Munster’s seemingly incurable travel sickness on jaunts to the Irish capital.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) March 27, 2021
Just once in their last 16 trips prior to this showpiece had Munster not left Dublin beaten and the sickly manner of their insipid league semi-final surrender last September, a meek 13-3 loss that ended with replacement hooker Kevin O’Byrne aimlessly grubber kicking into touch rather than carrying and trying to engineer a consolation, hadn’t exactly inspired that this journey would turn out anyway different.
Admittedly, Munster checked in with far more potent XV than what they mustered 29 weeks ago, Mike Haley, Joey Carbery, James Cronin, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn and the fast-maturing Gavin Combes the half-dozen alterations to their starting line-up.
They also arrived with wind in their sails by way of numerous pundits tipping them to cause an upset, something Leinster boss Cullen didn’t sound too chuffed about 24 hours earlier when he did his pre-game spiel. Granted Leinster may have been ambushed at the RDS last week by a late Ospreys try flourish, but that blip wasn’t an honest reflection of these durable champions.
There is a very good reason why Leinster were running at an 83.1 per cent success rate in the four league seasons leading into this decider (W64 D2 L11) – they marshal their resources intelligently and even for this decider they opted to hold something back in reserve, picking Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong on the bench in case of an emergency.
Toulon in next Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 was in the back of their minds while there was a nagging suspicion over whether Munster really were the real deal they were pumped up as. For all the alleged progress in recent months, they were still picked off in Limerick last January by a canny try in the corner from Jordan Larmour.
Still, regardless of the lopsidedness of this modern Leinster-Munster rivalry, the PRO14 showpiece was going to be an attractive prospect for fans wallowing in the warm glow of last weekend’s Six Nations win by Ireland over England.
Here was a contest in which 14 of the 19 Leinster and Munster players who helped the Irish seven days earlier were now rivals on the opposing XVs, nine Test staters in the blue corner and five in the red, including CJ Stander who has embarked on an Irish rugby farewell given he is soon to quit and head home to South Africa.
Would his exit come with a league winners’ medal? About two hours before kick-off, regulations governing the final potentially going to extra-time dropped into the inbox. It was a wasted message. Munster may somehow have made it to the interval level at six-all but they were a distant second best by the finish.
Report ?? https://t.co/OwfofdwBnm
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) March 27, 2021
Despite the blustery wind favouring Munster in the opening period, the visitors were soon nursing a bloody nose that would have been bloodier than the claret spilt by Kleyn had Larmour not fluffed the collection of a pass that would have put him at the corner following a show of Ronan Kelleher’s revved-up wheels down the middle.
A pair of Byrne penalties in the opening twelve minutes had the defending champions six points ahead, a margin halved by Carbery’s riposte two minutes later after Kleyn gobbled up Cian Healy on a carry. The breakdown penalty-winning Damian de Allende and an infringement-forcing Tadhg Beirne carry generated further Munster energy.
It was all pierced, though, by a soft Ryan knock-on on halfway and we were tossed back into Leinster sights seen earlier, further Kelleher wheels and another pass that eluded the in-space Larmour with the line glimpsed.
Whereas there were Byrne penalty points in the opening salvo, however, nothing was harvested here. Stander held Scott Fardy up over the line, crossing from Josh van der Flier spoiled another attack and then there was a majestic Keith Earls try-saving steal after ever-impressive duo Hugo Keenan and Robbie Henshaw careered through the middle.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 26, 2021
It was engrossing how underfire Munster dug in and instead of being backed up under their posts with the scoreboard taking on a perplexing complexion, they miraculously departed for the interval with parity after the third of three rapid-succession kicks – the first from Conor Murray and then two from Carbery – at the target was deemed good.
Was an unlikely upset potentially on the cards? No. In keeping with the theme of threes, Jack Conan barrelled over from his third rapid blast at the line for a 447th-minute lead that was never lost. Byrne nailed the second of two penalty attempts 22 minutes later for 16-6 after he had come back on after a short-lived Sexton cameo, Munster losing their bearings when a Murray box-kick ironically blew back at them.
It summed up how their initial resistance had now sorrowfully petered out, their aerial game and their scrum becoming too suspect. In need of tries and creativity, they never had a sniff against a pent-up Leinster buoyed by the unwavering industry of the likes of the impeccable Rhys Ruddock.
Familiar decade-old heartache for Munster, repetitive joy for Leinster. No wonder Cullen sounded off about those red-eyed pundits who had read the room completely wrong in the build-up.
"Whereas van Grann has now lost five of these last-four fixtures (three in the league, two in Europe), Leinster remain the beacon on how to learn from your semi-final mishaps"
– Liam Heagney on the @PRO14Official Leinster vs Munster fallout ???
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 5, 2020
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