The sight of Leinster Rugby fans streaming out of the RDS with ten minutes remaining said it all; the home team were a well beaten outfit against a Scarlets side who showed different facets with a superb road trip performance.
Leinster entered this fixture having to a make a late change in their starting squad. Sean O’Brien’s injury hit season continues as he was forced to pull out with a tight calf. The Lions tour management will be keen to test O’Brien early next week to ascertain the extent of the injury.
The team selection from Leinster personally raised alarm bells. The absence of Devin Toner in the second row meant that Twigg and Molony were entrusted to call the lineout set piece. Scarlets must have perked up no end by that decision, a set piece that Leinster have struggled with in recent weeks.
Scarlets as mentioned on my blog preview earlier this week stated that they were a seriously live threat. Irish pundits had disregarded the threat posed by the Welsh region and the opening half performance oozed class in all facets of play.
Leinster enjoyed dominance in the early exchanges but they were met by excellent defensive line speed from Scarlets. Shingler and Davies were to the fore with their breakdown work but more significantly put massive pressure on Sexton whenever the fly half had ball in hand.
Sexton could not rest as Scarlets line speed did not abate during the opening period. His distribution and influence were minimal and his kicking from hand was average. If Owen Farrell was worrying about the Lions ten jersey, he can rest easy as the jersey is now a lock for the England / Saracens star. Sexton’s form was inconsistent at best and his frustration was evident in that he got involved in several flashpoints, something you seldom see. Sexton was rattled and his team mates were not far behind them given the start made by Scarlets.
Scarlets soaked up the pressure and were forcing Leinster into several unforced turnovers. The early exchanges saw the withdrawal of Jack McGrath with a shoulder injury and the Welsh side came to the fore as the half progressed.
Adam Byrne has had a superb debut season for Leinster but the wing’s defensive misread caused the man overlap for the opening try. Barclay’s patient waiting for Evans on his shoulder was superb. Steff Evans pace was too much and he crossed with gusto.
Leinster were asked for a response and they produced an excellent try scored by Ringrose. Henshaw’s line break forced Scarlets to commit too many players to the breakdown area and the subsequent phase of play resulted Jack Conan offloading to Ringrose who made no mistake like Nacewa in the added extras. 10-7 Leinster and some would have expected Leinster to drive on.
However, it never happened. Leinster’s fringe defense was hit and miss all njght and another breakdown defensively in the home defense resulted in Shingler receiving the ball ten meters from the line with Gibson Park for company who was on for the unlucky Luke McGrath forced off due to a head injury.
The attempt from Gibson Park to stop Shingler was quite frankly embarrassing. A meek hand on Shingler who swatted him away with contempt and strode unopposed to score Scarlets’ second try. This try will haunt Gibson-Park for quite a while. Patchell added the conversion and Scarlets were back in front 14-12.
Leinster were now rattled and it was no surprise that Scarlets went over for another try soon after with more incisive passing, probing for defensive gaps and Davies’ line running and support was to the fore collecting the ball and going over for the try. The hosts defensive line speed and structure were all over the place. 21-12 and Leinster needed something to get them back into the contest.
Cue the key talking point of the game. Steff Evans was having a man of the match display; his speed and attacking threat to the fore. His defensive duties were on point until he tackled Gary Ringrose by the legs but as Ringrose spiralled to the ground, Evans did not support the player on the way down; the replays saw Ringrose in a vertical position. Red card but the contribution of Samson Lee in the play was not looked at. Leinster had a lifeline in the tie.
Scarlets showed their expansive side of the game in the opening period but the second half showed how improved they are defensively. The defensive organization, the decision making to compete in the breakdown vs. defend the fringes and the team work to support colleagues was to the fore. Leinster struggled to establish a foothold in the early second half exchanges. Gibson-Park showed the panic in the ranks by kicking out in the full early doors when patience and building the phases was the right call.
Leinster manage,ment will be more disappointed that no-one on the pitch took over the leadership mantle. The usual suspects were strangely quiet for Leinster and the decision to omit Toner was seriously backfiring as once Leinster player Tadhg Beirne had a superb performance in the second row. work rate and lineout throw steals in an all action display. The line-out options for Leinster were extremely one dimensional; first option with little prospect of hitting deep in the line.
Jack Conan was probably the player of the game for Leinster. His work rate and effort were rewarded with a try which looked to be a pivotal score midway through the second half. Scarlets were their own worse enemy in the leadup for the score. A sloppy kick from McNicholl and then a Scarlets lineout over throw five meters out from their own line resulted in Leinster gaining possession deep which Conan score. Nacewa unbelievably missed the conversion and it was a decisive miss. 15-19 to Scarlets. The Welsh region had to respond.
Scarlets knew that they needed to gain territorial parity to get some much needed space to recuperate from a prolonged defensive stint. Cian Healy was pinged for bringing the scrum down and Liam Wiliams stood up to the pressure to dispatch the long range penalty over. 15-24 and Leinster were on the brink and leaders again were required. However, they failed to appear as Scarlets were keeping their defensive composure and another penalty award saw the opportunity clinically put away by Williams. Game over.
The Pro 12 away playoff jinx is now consigned to the history books. Scarlets were by far the superior side on the night. If Evans had not being sent off, one wonders what the scoreline and margin of victory could have being. Scarlets beat Leinster 6-5 in the second half, playing with fourteen men. Leinster can have no complaints; they were second best in the pack exchanges albeit Furlong tried to win the game on his own with his trademark physical line running. Beirne was the dominant figure in the set-piece and the fact that Twigg was withdrawn in the opening second half exchanges spoke volumes. The back row breakdown contest was a no contest. Davies, Shingler and Barclay dominated the breakdown area. Davies is such a talent; his mobility and ability to pinch opposition ball should warrant a Welsh call-up.
The half-back battle was won by Scarlets. Luke McGrath’s withdrawal was a decisive moment as Gibson-Park lack of confidence and poise in decision making make his colleagues nervous around him. Patchell varied the game well during his cameo and his kicking off the tee was on point. Davies at nine was snipping throughout; his line running and support to colleagues was excellent. Sexton endured a miserable evening; no opportunity to settle into the contest.
The back line units was again Scarlets. Defensively solid while Leinster tolled. Byrne on the wing learned more in this contest than he has all season. Scarlets clearly targeted the rookie and gain line breaks were established. Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams partnership is superb; Williams is so solid, he possess good pace and line break ability plus his defensive nous is key. Davies is an excellent footballer; his game management was to the fore in one game moment in the second half. Davies received a nothing ball and his decision was swift; drubber kick the ball into touch as nothing was on. It was this cool, collective decision making which set Scarlets out apart.
Scarlets have being the form side of this tournament this year. They will not fear whoever is coming from the other side of the draw. If it is Munster, the pressure will be on the Irish province. Ospreys — they have an edge given their recent win over their rivals. Scarlets will hope to overturn Evans ban to allow him to play in the showpiece event.
For Leinster, it has a devastating end to the season and plenty of soul searching among team management and squad during the summer. For all the talent in the squad, both the Clermont and Scarlets semi-final losses saw indifferent performances from the side. A lack of work rate in the opening periods of these games to establish a platform was pivotal. The lack of attacking precision was criticized by Leinster fans last season; a repeat could be leveled at the side after last night. Cullen as head coach will need to evolve; there was no plan B when Scarlets counter attacked the attacking threats of Sexton and Ringrose.
A note for the Leinster fans who decided to leave early last night. You support a team through thick and thin. It is pretty pathetic for supporters to turn their back on a side considering the game was still in the melting pot with ten minutes left. It happened with some so called Munster fans in the Aviva in April as well. Leinster players paraded around the RDS to near virtual empty stands; supporters need to show appreciation for the team’s efforts. Sad indictment. Leinster will be back but whether those fans will be is an entirely different story. Scarlets advance and they cannot wait for the final!