Leinster 24 Munster 20:
THIS one stuck in the craw for a long time after Leinster claimed the inaugural Celtic League title back in 2001 by defeating old rivals Munster with just 14 men in the final at Lansdowne Road.
It was particularly sweet for scrum-half Brian O’Meara and tight-head prop Paul Wallace, both men of Munster, but now established in the blue of Leinster.
For coach Matt Williams it was also a moment of truth for his so-called ‘soft D4 boys’ because they shrugged off the loss of Eric Miller, red carded for kicking Anthony Foley, who was playing the ball back at a ruck in the first-half, to run out deserving winners.
Serious questions were asked of Leinster as to whether they had the stomach for a battle and they provide the most emphatic answer, to Williams’s delight.
Played 10 days before Christmas, it was the perfect gift for Leinster, who showed courage in abundance after Munster dominated early.
They led 12-6 at half-time with Miller’s dismissal after 26 minutes the main talking point among the 30,000 crowd.
Paul O’Connell and Jim Williams had led from the front as Munster swept in for a couple of tries with Ronan O’Gara’s imprints all over both.
His break, followed by quick aggressive rucking, led to Foley crossing for the first before the out-half spotted John Kelly in space and his well-timed pass sent the centre through.
Leinster still managed to get scores on the board even though they were on the back foot for long spells, out-half Nathan Spooner landing a couple of penalties.
The pattern seemed to continue on the resumption as O’Gara kicked Munster 15-6 clear, but the seven forwards of Leinster started to get a stranglehold of the game.
Munster conceded penalties and Spooner gratefully accepted the opportunities, 15-9 and 15-12, before Leinster edged in front for the first time.
Dennis Hickie made the decisive incision in the Munster defence before outstanding flanker Keith Gleeson and the equally impressive Shane Horgan combined to send Gordon D’Arcy in for a brilliant try
Spooner missed adding the extras, but, seemingly against all the odds, Leinster had moved 17-15 in front and Munster were struggling.
Their position worsened after Horgan gathered Brian O’Driscoll’s chip to claim Leinster’s second try, again converted by Spooner, to surge nine points clear with the clock against Munster.
They did manage a third try, but Anthony Horgan’s effort came too late to affect the outcome and Leinster celebrated their first victory over their fierce rivals in three years.
Both sides carried an unbeaten 20-game run between them coming into the final though Munster were affected more by the absence of key players.
They lost Peter Stringer, John Hayes and Wallace’s brother, David, before a ball was kicked and then Dominic Crotty went off injured with no specialist full-back on the bench.
Worse was to come as Peter Clohessy pulled a chest muscle and swapped places with Marcus Horan for a while, but eventually went off as did centre Rob Henderson, who had been playing well.
Tries: A Foley, J Kelly, A Horgan. Con: R O’Gara. Pen: R O’Gara.
Tries: G D’Arcy, S Horgan. Con: N Spooner. Pens: N Spooner (4).
G Dempsey; D Hickie, B O’Driscoll, S Horgan, G D’Arcy; N Spooner, B O’Meara; R Corrigan (c), S Byrne, P Wallace; L Cullen, M O’Kelly; E Miller, V Costello. K Gleeson.
B Casey for Cullen 59.
D Crotty; J O’Neill, J Kelly, R Henderson, A Horgan; R O’Gara, M Prendergast; M Horan, F Sheahan, P Clohessy; M Galwey (c), P O’Connell; J Williams, A Foley, A Quinlan.
J Holland for Henderson 58, M Cahill for Clohessy 61, M O’Driscoll for Galway and C McMahon for O’Connell 73.
N Whitehouse (Wales).