Leinster still have a domestic and European double in their sights after a 16-15 win over Munster in a pulsating Guinness PRO14 semi-final 16-15 at the RDS.
Gerbrandt Grobler’s late try set up a nerve-jangling final minute, but the Champions Cup winners prevailed to set up a rematch with Scarlets in next Saturday’s final at the Aviva Stadium.
Simon Zebo after the final whistle in his final match with Munster. Pics: Donall Farmer/PA Wire
A seventh-minute try from Jack Conan was the difference between the sides at half-time, Leinster establishing a 10-3 lead with JJ Hanrahan and Ross Byrne exchanging penalties in front of an 18,930-strong crowd.
A momentum-shifting try from Keith Earls, two minutes into the second half, took the heat out of Jean Kleyn’s sin-binning, only for Byrne’s second penalty and a 76th-minute penalty from Joey Carbery to prove just enough for the hosts in the end.
Having missed out on the European decider, James Lowe quickly made his mark on the interprovincial clash with two superb carries, twice leaving Simon Zebo in his wake, before the Kiwi winger’s slick offload sent Conan over to the left of the posts.
Carbery converted and the omens were not good for Munster, a knee injury forcing Jack O’Donoghue off and Jordan Larmour threatening on the right wing.
Fly-halves Hanrahan and Byrne swapped penalties, with CJ Stander and Rory Scannell increasing their influence for the visitors, who had Sam Arnold to thank for a terrific try-saving tackle on man-of-the-match Lowe.
Although Munster had Leo Cullen’s men scrambling from a scrum penalty and Conor Murray’s pacy break, Zebo blew an overlap opportunity and Hanrahan miscued his second shot at the posts in the 27th minute.
The abrasive visitors also left points behind them when Stander was held up by James Ryan and Luke McGrath, and lock Kleyn’s reckless clear-out on Byrne resulted in a yellow card.
Munster roared back after the restart, Earls expertly touching down near the left corner despite the presence of two defenders. Zebo cleverly set up the score which had roots in replacement Robin Copeland’s initial turnover.
Replacement Ian Keatley’s missed conversion was followed by a Byrne three-pointer at 13-8, both packs landing blows with Munster thwarting the hosts’ maul and then Leinster winning a scrum penalty which Byrne pushed wide.
Carbery, who had closed off a dangerous kick chase from Zebo, did not have the distance from a 49-metre penalty attempt, while Munster turned down a kickable shot and Leinster disrupted the subsequent lineout.
Leinster’s reserve front row were hugely influential, hooker James Tracy’s efforts at the breakdown breaking up Munster’s momentum and Andrew Porter delivering a crucial scrum penalty which Carbery landed for 16-8.
Desperate to avoid a second semi-final defeat of the season, Munster stormed back and TMO Neil Paterson confirmed Grobler’s try at the base of the right-hand post.
Keatley’s conversion had the margin down to a single point, but Leinster replacement Max Deegan latched onto a ruck ball to force a final penalty and end Munster’s breathless comeback bid.