Leinster 21; Munster 16
Hurrah! We’re back to the days when there was hardly a cigarette paper’s width in difference between the traditional two strong provinces.
And after a magnificent encounter at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, it was touch and go right to the end as to who would take away the laurels.
On the previous occasion the pair locked horns, it was the men from the south who came out on top to progress to the BKT United Rugby championship final, on their way to winning that competition against all the odds.
This time it was Leinster’s turn to edge home, thanks to tries from Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Sheehan and Jordan Larmour.
Leinster needed this win despite all their recent dominance, yet Munster boss Graham Rowntree afterwards claimed his side could and possibly should have won. His pride was understandable particularly when you consider that they traveled without injured Irish hero Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue, Joey Carbery and RG Snyman. In contrast Leinster were stacked with no less than 15 starting international players.
Munster drew first blood and led 10-0 after a brilliant break and touchdown by Craig Casey converted by Jack Crowley, who also stroked over a penalty.
That certainly prodded the bear in the eye and true to form, the eastern province responded with Gibson-Park and Sheehan dipping down for converted tries in the second quarter to wrestle back the lead, if not total control.
Crowley, now the incumbent Ireland outhalf, played like a veteran and landed two further penalties to suggest the men in red might record a second Aviva win in succession.
Leo Cullen’s charges stood up when it mattered most and finished the stronger with Larmour the hero as he got over for the vital third try. Cullen too was full of praise for the encounter and in particular how Ciarán Frawley's influence after coming on after seven minutes for out-half Ross Byrne, helped shape the contours of the game.
Frawley, now 25, slotted over three conversions and more importantly kept the lines of running going effortlessly.
Said Cullen: "Ciarán stepped in well. I thought he was excellent, controlled the game. Even though he was played at 15 at the start of the season for us, the way roles are, particularly with someone like Ciarán, he’s comfortable stepping up as that first receiver and that interplay between your 10, 12 and 15. It’s great to have that second ball-player there.
Jack Crowley kicked 11 of Munster's points. [Inpho/Billy Stickland]
"He’s been excellent for us this season. Hopefully that will be the case going forward as well so he stepped in, kicked his goals and it was a pretty accomplished and comfortable performance from him."
Even in defeat, Rowntree was upbeat. "Where was it won and lost? I thought it was a hell of a game. We will look at ourselves, our composure when we get near the opposition try line. We were held for a goal line drop out early in the game and if we had scored there, it changes the context of the next quarter.
"There’s elements of the third quarter as well that we will look at what we can do better on the opposition try line, look at those chances and where we can make better decisions. But that was a proper team. With 50,000 people at the Aviva I’m immensely proud of our performance.”
Indeed they could have drawn or snatched victory when they twice raided into the home 22 but were hoisted with their own petard on both occasions as they tried to conjure up a late, late score.
Honors just to Leinster but it was once again a game of first among equals.
Bulls 53; Connacht 27
In Pretoria, South Africa, the Bulls crushed the men from the west 53-27 to gain a bonus-point victory with full-back Willie Le Roux, playing his first match since helping the Springboks retain the Webb Ellis Cup, scoring a try.
Others followed from Akker van der Merwe, Elrigh Louw, Ruan Nortje, Nizaam Carr, David Kriel and Chris Smith with brilliant out-half Jaco van der Walt nailing five conversions and adding two penalties in this 26-point victory.
Connacht, who won in South Africa versus Sharks the previous weekend, tried their best on a day they were outclassed from start to finish. They showed courage in adversity though as they scored tries via Diarmuid Kilgallen, Tadgh McElroy and Shamus Hurley-Langton, with outhalf Jack Carty totting up 10 points.
Meanwhile, Ulster lost away from home 33-20 against Glasgow Warriors.