The Guinness Pro 12 regular season is in the books. For eight teams, it is time to shut it down for the off season and hit the beach. For Leinster and Scarlets, playoff rugby looms large in the horizon with a final at the Aviva Stadium the prize. This article previews the opening playoff fixture in the RDS.
Leinster wary of Scarlets challenge
The playoffs kick off with a potentially mouthwatering fixture between Leinster who for a last day loss to Ulster was top of the league for a large part of the season against a Scarlets team who have hit optimum form at the right time of the season.
Leinster have made RDS a fortress in the Pro 12 league. Their squad depth has absorbed the international fixtures throughout the season. The fact that they went through the RBS 6 Nations phase of the league unbeaten is a testament to a squad who are performing efficiently in defense and with ball in hand.
The arrival of Graham Henry during the off-season to advise Leo Cullen on all things coaching and management was a superb move but even more so was the decision to hire Stuart Lancaster to the coaching ticket. Lancaster hallmarks on Leinster this season were obvious; improved line speed both defensive and attacking lines were more precise. This relieved the pressure on Cullen in his second season as head coach.
Leinster have injury concerns over Cronin and Henshaw but would expect at least one of the players to line up for this fixture. Leinster do not have a weak point in their lineup; their front five is abrasive and the scrum set piece with McGrath and Furlong in superb form creating the platform to create scoring opportunities.
The second row has being an area where Leinster have switched and changed during various parts of the season. Toner is the first choice in this unit but his partner has being less than clear cut. Twigg will probably line up with the Irish international but Molony and Kearney have stepped in at times; the line out has being overall good but has had lapses most notably in the ERC semi-final where this set piece component was below the standard required.
The back row options for Leinster are endless. Heaslip, O’Brien, van der Flier, Conan, Ryan, Ruddock and Leavy all come into the mix for selection. The competition for even a matchday squad berth is incredible within this unit and must be difficult for management ahead of key fixtures to pick. Mobility will be key against Scarlets and the role of van der Flier in this fixture for Leinster cannot be underestimated.
James Davies has being sublime this season for the Scarlets again; his breakdown work has caught the eye and resulted in numerous turnovers for the Welsh region. Leinster need to nullify the threat of Davies, otherwise Scarlets will have an superb chance to secure a road trip win.
The half-back combination for Leinster are excellent. Luke McGrath has grown into the team and nine role this season; his game management and speed of distribution from the ruck has allowed Sexton / Byrne or Carbery the time to launch their runners. Sexton will look to set down a marker for the Lions management with a superb performance this weekend.
Sexton at ten has all the tools of the trade. His game management and ability to vary play leaves opposition off balance. It is imperative for Scarlets to slow down Leinster ball at ruck time and line speed on point defensively to force Sexton to rethink his game plan. A tall order but it is what is required.
The three quarter combination should be Henshaw and Ringrose; a massive tussle beckons against a Scarlets side containing Lions player Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams whose creativity, line breaking ability and offload play will take stopping. Ringrose at thirteen has evolved this season.
His attacking play was clear for rugby fans to see this season, his pace and ability to expose defensive mismatches has resulted in several tries. However, his defensive side has improved as the season has progressed. It will need to be on par with the opposition arriving to the RDS this weekend. Henshaw is a superb ball player, can provide the hard yards but also has a superb kicking game which at times has allowed Leinster to exert pressure on opposition. A superb match up beckons.
Isa Nacewa has being a standout leader for Leinster this season. He has mentored the likes of Adam Byrne, Eric Byrne during the season for the betterment of the side. Nacewa has chipped in with numerous key game contributions whether it was scoring tries, kicking penalties or denying opposition a certain try due to a superb last ditch tackle. Nacewa is an inspirational figure in the province, a potential head coach in the making. The team is stacked with leadership and quality but they face a Scarlets side who are eager to continue their impressive recent league form.
Scarlets mobility and offload game can cause Leinster problems
Leinster have being due warned on the threat posed by their visitors this weekend. A resounding win on the road to current league champions Connacht was extremely impressive but then how they took the Ospreys to task in their final league game of the season set a marker for the playoffs.
Scarlets may have started the season slowly but their end of the season has being like a steam train. This is a side whose ERC record was excellent beating Toulon at home and being denied a win by Saracens. When you add the emphatic demolition of Munster at Thomond Park, you are starting to see the momentum that has being built in recent months.
The Welsh region oozes class. Evans, Owens and Lee are established Welsh front row internationals. Owens has being sublime this season on set piece and has rightfully earned a Lions call. Owens for me is the first choice hooker on this tour. His captaincy and leadership this season has inspired those around him. The second row is all about Jake Ball; an extremely combative player whose reliable line-out option provides Scarlets with a good platform to launch their back line. Tadhg Beirne has provided additional support for Owens on the line-out. The back row is mobile and aggressive. We have already mentioned Davies tormenting opposition at the breakdown but he is ably assisted by the likes of Shingler and Boyde who are dynamic ball carriers and excellent work rate and tackle counts.
The half-back partnership is young and exciting. Patchell at ten has arrived from the Blues and has grown into the ten jersey. He will be put under pressure by Leinster this weekend. How does Patchell vary the game plan to keep Leinster the fast defensive line speed off balance? Davies at nine will snip throughout. His cameo against Ospreys last time out was evidence of this creating tries and his box kicking is on point.
The back line is where this side oozes class. The conditions this time of year are primed for Scarlets to let loose. The three quarter partnership will provide gain line breaks in abundance. Jonathan Davies at thirteen is a sublime footballer; his ability to read defensive setups and make the right decision is to the fore. Williams alongside will provide excellent defensive cover but can also spot a defensive gap. Henshaw and Ringrose will have their work cut out if Scarlets can get over the game line with quick ruck ball for Davies to distribute.
Liam Williams will leave Scarlets for Saracens at the end of this season but his mission is to win silverware for the Scarlets before making the move to London. His all round game and physicality are to the fore. His recent performances have exhibited these qualities. Leinster’s kicking game will need to be on point this weekend, otherwise Williams will run riot. He is ably assisted by full back McNicholl, a player under the radar personally until I saw him at Thomond Park at the start of the year. Superbly adept player when joining the line. Solid defensively. Evans as well on the other wing is a speed merchant and his try scoring prowess in recent rounds means a dangerous threat awaits Leinster.
This is the standout Pro 12 playoff fixture this weekend. Scarlets come into this game with massive confidence and form. Their try scoring ability from all areas of the park represents a live opponent for Leinster this weekend. The key battles will be the front five which is 50/50 personally particularly if Cronin misses out. The other key battleground is the ten position. Patchell will need to have an excellent game for Scarlets to secure this road win. Leinster will throw different looks at the player and Patchell will need to keep it simple initially but then need to become more expansive as the game progresses to launch his impressive back line runners. Can Patchell provide the confidence and leadership for Scarlets? All should point to a Leinster victory considering their unerring home form this season but there is something about this Scarlets’ outfit which is making me think that a road trip win is not beyond the realms of possibility. If Scarlets can stand up to the Leinster set piece, they have a superb chance. Slight edge to Leinster but do not be surprised if Scarlets win this. I cannot wait for the fixture to arrive on Friday.