Dublin. Aviva Stadium. A city and stadium where Scarlets have very fond memories of after last season’s Guinness Pro 12 final triumph. A week before this final triumph, Scarlets had dumped Leinster Rugby out of the Pro 12 competition with an emphatic defensive and attacking performance with fourteen men! Will any of those memories spook Leinster Rugby ahead of this tussle? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
This game will be decided by the performance of Gibson-Park. The New Zealander comes into the side as Luke McGrath is ruled out due to injury. Gibson-Park will look to right a few wrongs facing the Scarlets this weekend. The scrum-half was exposed in his defensive play and general game management in that playoff loss. Leinster Rugby looked very one dimensional on that night. Gibson-Park needs to zip the ball from the ruck and his kicking game needs to be on point, a facet of play at times that can be a little inconsistent. The inclusion of Gibson-Park has meant that James Lowe sits out the weekend. Double blow for Leinster Rugby. Gibson-Park needs to deliver this weekend. If he does, Leinster Rugby will advance to the final.
A marvelous battle at the breakdown beckons. Dan Leavy vs. James Davies. Two players who will look to disrupt and secure ruck ball. Both players are fine exponents of this facet of play. Davies” pace and mobility evident last season; he was a major cog in the Guinness Pro 12 title winning side. A constant menace but facing him is Dan Leavy who is playing sublime rugby this season. Leavy has being a wrecking ball in the ruck area and his ability to pinch ball was to the fore against Saracens in the quarter final. Both players have good supporting back row units as well. Murphy vs. Shingler is another meaty tussle in the breakdown but also in the ball carrying duties.
Scarlets Half-Back Switch
Wayne Pivac has thrown a curve ball to some with the inclusion of Dan Jones at ten, meaning that Rhys Patchell moves to full back and Leigh Halfpenny to the wing. Jones was superb in the 30-27 win over Toulon in the final pool game last January. His ability to link up play and execute the right pass on the gain line to Parkes and Williams is to the fore. Jones also has an effective kicking game. Leinster Rugby need to put pressure on the half-back early doors, otherwise it could be a long afternoon for the Irish province. A gamble for some but you can see the logic. Jones will throw the ball with intent early doors.
Back Three Battle
Leinster Rugby are coming into this fixture as marginal favorite. The back three units for either side look good on skill set. Leinster’s back three has vast experience but Scarlets look to have the speed advantage here and if this game gets fractured, I would fear for Leinster Rugby’s back three given the pace of Evans, Halfpenny and Patchell who will look to set Evans free with deft kicks in behind. Scarlets by virtue of their selection of Jones at ten is quite clear; look to test Leinster’s back three defensively early door to build a platform and scoreboard advantage. A dry track for this pacy Scarlets side is another bonus; this side will take beating.
Beirne vs. Ryan Battle
What a contest beckons! Tadhg Beirne has being outstanding for Scarlets in recent seasons. The second row who joins Munster Rugby next season has an enormous work rate in set piece and maul exchanges. It will require James Ryan to continue his upward performance curve to stem the influence of Beirne. Failure to do so and Scarlets are going to the final. Beirne is a wrecking ball with ball in hand. His performances this season have being nothing short of sensational. Devin Toner will also need to play his part; line out solidity is required and his ability to support Ryan to stifle Beirne will be required at certain junctures.
Robbie Henshaw coming into the Leinster Rugby is a timely boost. The Athlone man is defensively excellent, cleans up defensively for colleagues consistently. His attacking threat with ball in hand will pose an issue for Williams and Parkes as well. He complements Ringrose perfectly. His physicality is on point and allows Ringrose to be creative with ball in hand. Solid three quarter partnership for Leinster Rugby tomorrow; definitely required given the absence of Lowe from the squad.
Extra time looms for me in this contest. Both sides will have good moments and I think Leinster Rugby will just get over the line. Leinster Rugby will have to absorb some nervy moments from a Scarlets side who will throw different looks. The scrum-half performance for Leinster Rugby is a massive factor here; giving Gibson-Park the benefit of the doubt but if he struggles, the side will struggle for continuity. No pressure. Expect tries at regular intervals, cannot wait for this fixture!