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Leinster Rugby (11) 25 - 6 (6) Munster Rugby
Heineken Cup Semi-Final
Croke Park, Dublin
Saturday, 2 May 2009, 17:30
Att: 82,208

So many steps forward. A club match played in Croke Park just three short years after the doors were open to other sports, 82,000 for a Heineken cup match, a crowd that while it may not have been complete parity had huge sections of blue, bright blue amongst the red. The Leinster team knew that a big step forward was needed to go at least one better and reach their first HEC Final after the painful semi-final defeats that had gone before.

A lot had changed in three years since Munster beat Leinster in Lansdowne Road; gone was Reggie Corrigan, Keith Gleeson, Denis Hickie and Guy Easterby but there were plenty who remained and were desperate to erase that particular feeling. Felipe Contepomi for instance, played in 2006 and has always had a rocky relationship with Munster. There have been tries and wins alright but there have also been cards and missed kicks and on his final occasion against the men in red he would have been have been desperate to set the world to rights.

Early on he did just that. Setting a tone for the day Contepomi put a large hit on Ronan O'Gara who had found himself unflanked. In sending O'Gara backwards Felipe knew that he had rattled the Munster outhalf and doing that can often reap rewards. The early exchanges were attritional and threatened to spill over at times with some off the ball grappling that never really ignited.

Leinster had the first opportunity to open the scoring when they were awarded a penalty inside the Munster half. It was a difficult kick just past half way and slightly to the side and Contepomi hooked it off target. Suddenly the doubts were back, would Contepomi implode again against Munster? The questions were soon answered when Contepomi struck a sweet drop goal, not something that has punctuated his time at Leinster, to give them first blood. The drop goal was set up by intelligent kicking and good pressure from a runner to secure lineout ball and a platform for the outhalf.

Soon there was more to fret on with the sight of Ian Dowling writhing in agony on the floor after being smashed by the combined efforts of Cian Healy and Brian O'Driscoll in preventing him chasing a kick. A penalty and yellow duly arrived with Healy deemed the more culpable and with a swish of his boot O'Gara had the sides level.

Leinster were down to fourteen men and Munster had struck back to level the scoring, this seemed like it might be a crucial development but it was Leinster that took the game by the scruff of the neck. A great break by Rocky Elsom brought about a penalty for Leinster that was eminently kickable. The only problem was the kicker was in agony on the ground. Contepomi had twisted his knee badly and Croke Park saw the sad sight of him limping from the field. The news after the match that this was to be his last moment in combat for Leinster makes the sight sadder and he received huge applause from the blue half of the crowd.

Jonathan Sexton came onto the park in his stead and again there were mutterings of doubt among the assembled onlookers. Where one would be confident that Contepomi could nail this kick, could Sexton? The replacement took his time and towards the end he had jeers to contend with, but he struck it home to his palpable relief and Leinster had the lead again.

Parity in numbers was restored with Healy's reintroduction into the team and Leinster had not only held Munster at arms length while down to fourteen but had retaken the lead. Leinster were to stretch their legs and their lead shortly afterwards. Wonderful combinations between O'Driscoll and Nacewa sent D'Arcy hurtling towards the line and despite the attentions of Keith Earls, himself a Lion where D'Arcy was disappointed, D'Arcy had the momentum to slide over to touch down. The try was a throwback to the way Leinster used to play with strong running and crisp passing. Suddenly Leinster's lead was 8 points and Sexton had the chance to extend the lead but the kick proved just beyond him.

Munster were awarded their second penalty within five minutes and again it was a slightly needless challenge from a Munster kick. This time Rocky Elsom's tug on Doug Howlett's shirt felt the ire of Nigel Owens and Leinster were penalised. O'Gara again made no error and cut the gap back to 11-6 at half time.

More doubts at half time? Was a five point gap enough for the play that Leinster had enjoyed? Surely Munster would come out all guns blazing! Could Leinster hold on?

Holding on wasn't a part of the game plan. Within two minutes of the restart Leinster had scored again. This time it was Luke Fitzgerald with a step that bamboozled Paul Warwick. Fitzgerald's finish was all the more impressive as he had gathered the ball slightly behind him following great work by Horgan and the impressive Nacewa. Sexton duly added the extras and Leinster's lead was twelve points.

Munster seemed shell shocked and they were making uncharacteristic handling errors seemingly trying to force the play a bit too much. Leinster were dominating in nearly every area except the lineout which was quite shaky. But the previous weeks problems with restarts had been ironed out and Leinster were asserting themselves well in the scrum and breakdown.

On the hour came a pivotal moment. As Munster again tried to work an opening O'Driscoll read a pass by O'Gara to O'Connell. As O'Gara recoiled O'Driscoll was into the line and after one adjustment he gathered. Despite O'Gara's desperate chase he could not catch O'Driscoll who scored his 25th try in European competition from the edge of his own 22.

Sexton converted and the lead was out to three converted tries surely insurmountable and yet...with twenty minutes to go there was always the chance that Munster, the European champions, could pull it out of the fire.

The tackle count was mounting on the Leinster side too with more and more hits going into Munster bodies. Munster appeared to be reverting to type as they tried to punch through Leinster's middle but Leinster withstood the pressure and effected a turnover on their own line through Healy and O'Driscoll.  Anyone who witnessed Leinster's performance against Quins will know that punching through the Leinster defence around the ruck is not easily done and yet Munster persisted with this tactic. Time and again the pressure was relieved by a handling error, turnover ball or penalties against Munster.

The pressure of chasing the game was getting to Munster and again the physicality spilled over. On one occasion Leo Cullen appeared incensed as Alan Quinlan's hand went in close proximity to his eye, an act that has resulted in the Lions forward being cited and could jeopardise his trip to South Africa in the Summer.

As the clock ticked towards the 70 minute mark substitutes were sprung but nothing made a difference to the Leinster rearguard. Meanwhile in the stand the blue became more concentrated as some of the Munster support sloped away and Molly was pealing onto the pitch. The clock turned red and it was all over for the reds as Jamie Heaslip had the honour of ending the match, not trusting himself to kick perhaps but running it out from ten yards.

Leinster had done it; there were no wild celebrations, well not on the pitch anyway. There was the shaking of hands and applause for the fans as the players allowed what had gone before to sink in. It was a mammoth performance with plenty of aggression, passion and skill. To score three unanswered tries against Munster was a huge task but perhaps the most pleasing aspect was to hold Munster scoreless from the 36th minute. As against Quins Leinster had shown their strength in defence but had taken a step forwards in adding three well constructed tries.

A big step forward, now for one more.

Match Statistics

Leinster Rugby
Munster Rugby
Tries D'Arcy
Fitzgerald
O'Driscoll
   
Conversions Sexton (2)    
Penalties Sexton   Ronan O'Gara (2)
Drop Goals Felipe Contepomi  
Sinbin Cian Healy (17 - 27)  
 
Teams Isa Nacewa 15 Paul Warwick
Shane Horgan
14 Doug Howlett
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Keith Earls
Gordon D'Arcy 12 Lifeimi Mafi
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Ian Dowling
Felipe Contepomi 10 Ronan O'Gara
Chris Whitaker 9 Peter Stringer

Cian Healy 1 Marcus Horan
Bernard Jackman 2 Jerry Flannery
Stan Wright 3 John Hayes
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Donncha O'Callaghan
Malcolm O'Kelly 5 Paul O'Connell (C)
Rockie Elsom
6 Alan Quinlan
Shane Jennings 7 David Wallace
Jamie Heaslip 8 Denis Leamy

Replacements John Fogarty (for Jackman, 64)
16 Tony Buckley (for Hayes, 65)
Ronnie McCormack (for Jennings, 18 - temp)
17 Denis Fogarty (for Flannery, 72)
Devin Toner (for O'Driscoll, 80)
18 Mick O'Driscoll (for O'Callaghan, 74)
Sean O'Brien (for Jennings, 73)
19 Niall Ronan (for Leamy, 65)
Simon Keogh
20 Mike Prendergast (for Stringer, 74)
Jonathan Sexton (for Contepomi, 25)
21 Barry Murphy (for Warwick, 65)
Girvan Dempsey (for Fitzgerald, 58)
22 Denis Hurley (for Earls, 78)

by Sarah Lennon, © 2009-05-06

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