Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Croke Park, May 2
Leinster stun Munster to book final berth
May 2, 2009
Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy celebrates after scoring a first-half try against Munster at Croke Park
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Leinster upset the odds to book a place in this season's Heineken Cup Final with a stunning 25-6 victory over Munster at Croke Park.
Tries from Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and man of the match Brian O'Driscoll along with a superb defensive display saw Leinster progress to their first-ever European final and end the hopes of their fierce Irish rivals and the defending champions.
No-one predicted the runaway scoreline but Michael Chieka's side fully deserved their victory that erased the memories of three previous semi-final defeats - the latest in 2006 at the hands of Munster. It was always going to take something special to derail Munster's latest tilt at glory and Leinster conjured a suitably dominant all-round performance - winning the crucial battle at the breakdown and hammering home that advantage in the scrum and lineout with the whole side to a man rising to the challenge.
In front of a world record crowd for a club game of 82,208 vociferous fans, Ireland's leading provinces played out a pulsating opening period that saw Leinster battle to a narrow lead on the back of a high-octane and intelligent effort.
Leinster fly-half Felipe Contepomi was off-target with an early long-range penalty chance but he shrugged off his early nerves to spearhead all Leinster's good work in the early exchanges. But it was Munster who provided the first clear chance when Lions-bound Keith Earls exploded through the Leinster line after some good work from centre partner Lifeimi Mafi. The Munster livewire left the defence in his wake but was hauled down just short before a big hit from the impressive Rocky Elsom on wing Ian Dowling brought the move to a halt.
Leinster rallied to open the scores with a Contepomi drop goal but they were reduced to 14-men straight after when prop Cian Healey was sent to the sin-bin for a cheap hit on Dowling. O'Gara slotted the resulting penalty to level the scores.
The numerical blow did little to knock Leinster off their stride with Elsom charging deep into 22 where Munster were forced into the penalty as they desperately tried to extinguish the threat. However, Leinster's elation was tempered by a serious looking knee injury to Contepomi who had to be helped from the field. His replacement Jonathan Sexton made an immediate impact by slotting the penalty.
Leinster's creativity soon brought more reward in the form of the opening try. The Leinster lineout, featuring influential skipper Leo Cullen, laid the platform for a sweeping move that stretched Munster to breaking point. Fullback Isa Nacewa capitalised on the space created by decoy runners to scythe through defence before floating a pass to D'Arcy who had the speed and strength to ride the challenge of Earls before dotting down.
An increasingly assured Sexton could not add the conversion but his side had the all-important momentum. Leinster had managed just five points in 160 minutes of Magners League action against Munster this season but now led 11-3 with barely half an hour on the clock.
An Elsom tug on winger Doug Howlett offered O'Gara the attempt to reduce the arrears which he duly took but Leinster continued to press with Sexton pulling a drop goal attempt wide of the posts just before the break.
Leinster picked up where they had left off after the re-start and their second try saw them take a firm grip on the game. Once again fullback Nacewa caused trouble as the extra man in the backline and some slick hands from O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan created the opening for Fitzgerald who stepped inside Paul Warwick for the score.
Sexton's conversion gave Leinster a commanding lead and the increasing pressure on Munster led to uncharacteristic errors. To their credit they did not give up their crown without a fight and rallied in search of an unlikely turnaround. They raised the pace but were a long way from their composed best.
A sustained spell of pressure took them deep into Leinster territory but they were thwarted at every turn. And the frustration of Munster flanker Alan Quinlan in particular appeared to get the better of him with TV cameras catching him apparently eye-gouging Cullen.
British & Irish Lions management will have been concerned as Fitzgerald limped off on the hour mark but the form of another of his stars will have raised a smile. Hard graft was only going to get Leinster so far and it would take a moment of genius to hammer home their advantage - cue the Ireland captain. O'Driscoll pounced on a loose pass from O'Gara and symbolically snatched it from the grasp of Munster skipper Paul O'Connell who pipped him to the Lions captaincy last month.
The talismanic centre then raced 70m downfield before touching down under the posts to put his side on course for the tournament finale later this month. Sexton's conversion was another nail in Munster's coffin but they still had the best part of a half to conjure another Heineken Cup miracle. But it was not be as Leinster continued to turn the screw and squeeze the life out of their opponents with an exceptional rearguard action.
Munster will have to make do with the Magners League crown that they claimed earlier this week - but rest assured that they will be back in search for European glory next season. One neutral who will be pleased by their misfortune will be Lions head coach Ian McGeechan who will now be able to welcome Munster's seven tourists into the fold sooner rather than later.
Not so for O'Driscoll, Fitzgerald and their fellow Leinster Lions Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney - their reward is a date with either Cardiff Blues or Leicester at Murrayfield on May 23 where having beaten Europe's best side they will fear no-one.
Leinster: Nacewa; Horgan, B O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald; Contepomi, Whitaker; Healy, Jackman, Wright, Cullen (capt), O'Kelly, Elsom, Jennings, Heaslip.
Replacements: Dempsey for Fitzgerald (59), Sexton for Contepomi (25), Fogarty for Jackman (62), O'Brien for Jennings (74). Not Used: McCormack, Toner, S. Keogh.
Sin Bin : Healy (16).
Munster: Warwick; Howlett, Earls, Mafi, Dowling; O'Gara, Stringer; Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O'Callaghan, O'Connell (capt), Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy.
Replacements: Murphy for Warwick (66), D Hurley for Earls (78), Prendergast for Stringer (74), Fogarty for Flannery (71), Buckley for Hayes (68), O'Driscoll for O'Callaghan (74), Ronan for Leamy (66).
Man of the Match: Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster)
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRFU).
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