The Leinster quest for an unprecedented hat-trick of successive Guinness PRO14 titles will roll onto next weekend’s final in Dublin after Leo Cullen’s side yet again got the better of Irish rivals Munster, this time by 13-3 at the Aviva Stadium.
A try from Ronan Kelleher and eight points from the boot of Johnny Sexton was enough to win a low-scoring, limited spectacle semi-final and leave them awaiting the winners of Saturday’s Murrayfield clash between Edinburgh and Ulster.
In contrast, Munster were left to rue a dearth of potency. Their ideas were limited in the opposition 22, there was an over-reliance on box-kicking while JJ Hanrahan was inaccurate twice off the tee in quick succession around the hour mark when just seven points separated the teams.
The result, though, was much expected. Munster had talked the talk in midweek, assistant Graham Rowntree and another World Cup winner Damian de Allende playing up their chances, but they were taxed by a five-day turnaround between matches as they fielded a dozen of the same starters from the Sunday win over Connacht and that exertion eventually took its toll against the way more rested Leinster XV.
Then there was the weight of history. The legendary Ronan O’Gara had insisted history had nothing to do with this fixture, except it very much did.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) September 4, 2020
Munster came into the game with just one win in 15 away to Leinster since ‘nilling’ them in September 2008 and while they were only two points shy 13 days earlier in a regulation-season derby following a late fightback, the gap at the final whistle on this occasion was pushed out to ten.
Letting Leinster dictate early on the scoreboard had too often been Munster’s downfall on these fraught assignments in the Irish capital, a dastardly derby sequence which started with that seminal Heineken Cup semi-final loss at Croke Park in 2009 and in recent years featured successive PRO14 semi-final defeats at the RDS.
You can now make that three lost league semis in a row even though Munster enjoyed a tonic of an opening, holding a three-point lead for 22 minutes before paying a heavy price for giving the hosts a sniff off a 28th-minute lineout maul.
What initially helped them was a series of uncharacteristic Leinster errors – typified by Jack Conan fumbling at halfway under dropping ball – which happened either side of Hanrahan slotting a sixth-minute kick to punish a breakdown offence. Further encouragement was the sight of Sexton’s levelling attempt from halfway falling wide.
Munster, though, couldn’t turn territory into further points in this crucial period and their positive early work unravelled on foot of the momentum shift that was Conor Murray being hit hard in possession by Hugo Keenan, a collision that had the noisy acclaim of the Leinster bench echoing around the empty stadium.
Then came a spill from Keith Earls after Sexton floated a teaser into the 22 and when a penalty ensued off the scrum, Leinster, for whom Will Connors and Caelan Doris excelled, backed their maul out of touch and Kelleher reached out to score.
Sexton, whose involvement finally brought up his 100th PRO14 appearance nearly 15 years after his January 2006 league debut at Borders, then added a kick from in front of the posts on the cusp of the half-time whistle, the seven-point margin leaving Munster with it all to do.
An issue for Munster during the opening gambit was giving Leinster some easy outs through errors when they were trying to build pressure, and the second-half started in a similar fashion with a breakdown infringement on the 22.
Then, when they were celebrating catching Keenan for holding on, the 54th-minute penalty award on the 22 was reversed as referee Andrew Brace called on his TMO to confirm it was an illegal hit from Shane Daly while James Lowe was in the air that had led to the scramble on the floor for possession.
The get-outs continued. Devin Toner stole a lineout after a penalty was punted into touch at the 22. Then Hanrahan shanked wide two penalty kicks in a four-minute spell around the hour mark before it became a two-score margin on 68 minutes, Sexton rewarding Doris’ penalty-winning breakdown nuisance. That was that, despite a late yellow card for replacement Josh van der Flier.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) September 4, 2020
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