The Munster head coach called for consistency from officials as he reflected on his side’s inter-pro defeat to Leinster.
Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium
JOHANN VAN GRAAN will wonder how his side — dominant in both the possession and territory stakes — make the return journey south with nothing to show for their efforts here, but the Munster head coach is in no doubt as to what the match-defining moment was.
After falling 14-0 down early in the piece at the Aviva Stadium, Munster responded with two tries through the work of their forward pack and appeared to have moved within a point of Leinster when Keith Earls streaked clear for an intercept try in the 42nd minute.
But in tackling Robbie Henshaw in the build-up, Sammy Arnold was adjudged to have deliberately knocked on before Earls pounced and scampered the length of the pitch for a seven-pointer, with referee Ben Whitehouse pulling play back and awarding Leinster an attacking penalty.
From there, the hosts kicked to the corner and in a near repeat of James Lowe’s first-half try on this near side, Jamison Gibson-Park looped a delicious pass over the stretching Earls, for the Kiwi winger to acrobatically finish in the corner.
Ross Byrne, named man of the match for an assured display, converted from the touchline for a 27-12 lead, with Whitehouse’s decision making it a 14-point swing in Leinster’s favour at a crucial juncture in the contest.
While Munster would rebound through a first score in red for scrum-half Alby Mathewson after a sustained period of pressure, Leinster’s well-drilled defensive unit ultimately stood firm to grind out a fourth straight win in this inter-pro fixture.
Afterwards, van Graan was understandably annoyed by the referee’s decision, with the South Africa’s frustration heightened further by a first-half penalty try and yellow card for Earls.
“I thought it cost us 14 points,” he said of the decision to send Earls to the bin for tackling Lowe fractionally early in this near corner.
“We worked pretty hard over the past few weeks to work on our composure. I thought we did that really well and came back to 14-12.
Van Graan was asked about the first incident again: “Look, if the referee thought that there was interference with the blue player [Lowe] then the laws of the game say it has to be a penalty try and a yellow card. He just made that decision so just stick with that decision.
“I think you’ve got to first give credit to the opposition. We got beaten by the better team today, unfortunately. Tonight was a great occasion for Irish rugby. The two teams went at each other for 80 minutes and unfortunately certain calls went against our team.
“That being said, with five minutes to go we conceded another penalty that took the game away from us; made it eight points and impossible for us to get back into the game.”
The costly penalty van Graan speaks of came just after Mathewson had reduced Leinster’s lead to five points with 10 minutes left on the clock, only for Stephen Archer to needlessly block Fergus McFadden from the restart.
Byrne, who kicked 13 points from the tee, sent it straight and through and Leinster’s lead was back out to eight points, leaving Munster empty-handed.
“Yeah, look, it’s not ideal but the same player was after coming off the back of a penalty try after five or six scrums,” Peter O’Mahony said.
“These things happen, you know, in the white-hot of a game. These are mistakes that I certainly won’t be commenting on or giving out about as I’ve been on the wrong end of them a few times myself. They’re decisions you make in games [and]that happens. With that intensity there, those things happen.”
Despite another defeat at the Aviva Stadium for Munster, and indeed a third loss on the road this term, there were still plenty of encouraging signs for the southern province heading into their Heineken Champions Cup opener at Exeter Chiefs next Saturday.
While their three tries all come from the dominance of their pack, the visitors showed ambition out wide, with Joey Carbery — on his return to Dublin — cleverly pulling the strings with a number of well-judged kicks in behind.
There was also plenty of good running rugby produced by Munster, with Dan Goggin contuining his excellent form and the likes of Earls, Andrew Conway and Sammy Arnold showing plenty of energy and creativity when in possession.
“We said afterwards that the whole week we had asked for a big performance and I’m very proud of my team,” Van Graan added. “I thought we did that tonight. We came back against a team that has not lost here since 2015, I believe.
“I thought we really stuck to our guns tonight. All credit to Pete and the leadership [group]on the pitch tonight. We stayed calm and I thought we played some brilliant rugby out there tonight.
“We want to improve as a team and I thought we did that tonight. Unfortunately, we came against a team that are possibly one of the best side in the world. All credit to them and I thought some of their individuals were fantastic. Someone like James Lowe had a fantastic game. All credit to Leinster for beating us tonight.”
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