REPORT: LEINSTER ‘A’ 46 MUNSTER ‘A’ 25
Leinster ‘A’ produced a dominant performance to defeat Munster ‘A’ 46-25 at Energia Park and advance to the inaugural final of the Celtic Cup.
Both teams entered the contest with five wins from five, making them the clear front-runners to qualify from the Ireland Conference. Peter Smyth’s side were tied on 24 points with their interprovincial counterparts heading into this round six affair, but started the night out in front due to their superior scoring average.
As ever, there was a healthy mixture of youth and experience within the Leinster ranks. Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney offered a considerable threat on the respective wings, while Tom Daly joined forces with Jimmy O’Brien in a combative midfield.
Noel Reid was facing the Red Army for the second time in the space of six days, following his cameo appearance in Leinster’s Guinness PRO14 triumph at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday.
Their opponents were also bolstered by the inclusion of several first-team squad members, including ex-Leinster tighthead Jeremy Loughman. Bill Johnston captained the side at out-half, with Tyler Bleyendaal featuring amongst the replacements on his return to full fitness.
While a tight contest was anticipated in Donnybrook, there was just 40 seconds gone on the clock when Leinster got their account up and running. Hesitancy in the Munster back-line saw the ball breaking loose inside the ’22’, where O’Brien was on hand to kick towards the Reds’ whitewash.
This created an opportunity for Dave Kearney – and despite being under pressure from a covering defender, the Louth native dotted down in remarkable fashion. Reid’s subsequent bonus strike drifted past the target, but the hosts had already served notice of their attacking intentions.
To Munster’s credit, they quickly regained focus for the remainder of the opening-quarter. The strength of their pack allowed them to get a foothold in the Leinster half and a scrum penalty afforded Johnston a chance to narrow the gap off the kicking tee.
From a distance of 25 metres, the former Ireland underage star confidently split the uprights. This helped to boost the confidence of the visitors, who lost out to Leinster in the quarter-final of last season’s British & Irish Cup.
A series of drives towards the opposition line looked set to produce their first try of the game, only for Leinster to find some defensive reserves. Peter Malone’s charges eventually secured another penalty close to the posts, however, which also led to a yellow-card for Leinster flanker Scott Penny.
Johnston moved Munster into the ascendancy with a routine kick – although their lead proved to be a short-lived one. In the absence of Penny, Leinster established territory and were rewarded in the shape of a 24th-minute place-kick – which Reid converted with minimal fuss.
As expected, this tie was played a breakneck pace throughout. There was little room for either side to rest on their laurels, especially when there was so much ball-carrying potential on display. A intricate move on the left-wing opened up space for the Munster backs and scrum-half Jack Stafford eventually dived over in the corner.
Johnston’s tricky touchline kick was short of the target, leaving Leinster within range of their southern counterparts. A Reid penalty briefly let their opponents off the hook, before the group leaders reinforced their authority in the closing stages of the half.
The Blues opted for touch three times in succession, and it eventually paid off with a 38th-minute try. Hooker Ronan Kelleher sought out Ross Molony on each occasion, with Penny picking up possession at the back of the ensuing maul.
The openside ultimately crashed over for a well-worked try that provided Leinster with a decisive edge so close to the break. Munster’s Sean O’Connor had earlier been sent to the sin-bin, and with Reid supplying the extras to this latest five-pointer, the home team brought a 15-11 cushion into the dressing rooms.
The Byrne twins – Bryan and Ed – entered the fray on the resumption and this enabled Leinster to maintain their considerable momentum. Another powerful line-out forced Munster on the back-foot three minutes after the restart.
Penny was once again in the right place to complete this incisive set-piece move, though Reid couldn’t add to his own scoring tally. Munster were not out of sight just yet and their second try of the proceedings arrived in swift fashion.
Gavin Coombes broke through a gap to give Munster an attacking platform. When the play was recycled towards the right of the posts, winger Sean French crossed over for a simple converted finish.
This was a test of Leinster’s mental resolve, but they responded in emphatic style. Once again, their physical presence in the line-out paid rich dividends. Another rolling maul close to the sidelines brought them deep into enemy territory and it was the turn of Bryan Byrne to add his name to the scoresheet.
A clinical Reid two-pointer created further daylight between the teams and also sealed a bonus point for an increasingly-impressive Leinster. With their tails now up, they sought to place the outcome beyond doubt.
An outstanding break by Vakh Abdaladze opened up an acre of space inside the Munster half – the bustling front-row releasing replacement half-back Hugh O’Sullivan for a run under the posts.
Yet, just when Leinster appeared to be on course for a stress-free final-quarter, Munster struck back in a determined manner. Bleyendaal’s introduction at inside centre meant that Johnston was retained at out-half.
He was released for a seven-point salvo on the hour mark, keeping Munster in contention for a spot in the showpiece decider. However, this acted as a springboard for Leinster to claim their sixth try of a pulsating encounter.
A sweeping attack across the Munster line ended with Kearney putting Adam Byrne through for a five-pointer on the right-wing. This effectively presented Leinster with an unassailable advantage, but they capped off a dominant second-half showing with a final try in the 75th-minute.
Jimmy O’Brien registered the try that his performance deserved at the end of a prolonged move, with Reid converting for the fourth time on the night.
REFEREE: Jonny Erskine (IRFU)