Leinster make point against Scarlets
Leinster 33 Scarlets 14:Leinster’s intent to gather the maximum 10 points over these final two Pool matches was immediately noticeable. Three semi-difficult shots at goal were spurned in the opening exchanges as Jonathan Sexton went down the tramline, where Leo Cullen’s lineout-maul did the rest.
Within 23 minutes they had two of the four tries needed to secure the essential bonus point. As expected, the Scarlets also obliged with their barely passable resistance.
It was the forwards’ night, Cian Healy then Shane Jennings peeling off the truck to touch down.
Sandwiched between these tries, the uncertainty of Seán Cronin’s lineout throwing saw them leave the Scarlets 22 with nothing despite five minutes of sustained pressure. But the visitors dam was so obviously creaking, held together by a makeshift selection as Welsh rugby, yet again, prioritises their national preparations for the Six Nations above everything else (George North did not even travel, while Matthew Rees and Jonathan Davies were benched).
Declan Kidney may have the same attitude but the Ireland coach would have collated more beneficial information ahead of selecting a team to play at the Millennium Stadium next month with Jamie Heaslip and Fitzgerald in action here.
Heaslip, without the support of Sean O’Brien in the backrow after he was ruled out through illness before kickoff, surpassed his usual excellent standards, especially with ball in hand. But it was Fitzgerald’s return to form that delighted the full house of 18,200 in Ballsbridge. Be it soaring to claim a Garryowen in traffic or losing his cool when ignored for a cross field punt, it ‘s clear the 25-year-old is ready to spark the second part of a career that still promises so much. That magical step of his was also on show.
Finally, he was fed possession to claim Leinster’s third try on 34 minutes. The supporting cast also deserves a mention as Healy’s deft one-handed offload in contact was linked to Fitzgerald by Devin Toner.
The scrum also needs to be highlighted; the all-Irish frontrow bullied their opposite numbers. That and the stealing of a few lineouts provided the platform for what looked, to the untrained eye, an easy victory.
All that was needed was the bonus point. At least the Scarlets kept matters interesting with Aled Brew cleverly exposing the numerical advantage (Fergus McFadden was receiving treatment to his leg) by cross-kicking to Liam Williams for a try on the stroke of half-time.
The best example of how poor Scarlets really were was seen when they allowed Rob Kearney step and roll three defenders for the all important fourth score. They fell off him far too meekly after Heaslip’s reserve pass off another rock solid scrum.
Thankfully, the game didn’t become too damp a squib as Leinster realised the need to improve their try-scoring record. So they kept pounding away, albeit with no reward until the very end.
After Kearney’s try, the next roar of delight came when Brian O’Driscoll trotted into the fray on 61 minutes. The crowd were glad to see him but, equally, they were serenading the magnificent return of Fitzgerald. His was a fine hour’s rugby after over eight months of uncertainty rehabbing a neck injury. The man of the match award was deserved, although Heaslip also made a strong case.
The only worry on the night was the sight of O’Driscoll gingerly rising and hobbling back into position late on. The medics sprinted to him at the next break in play. It was the right ankle. There were no subs left so he was switched to inside centre for the attacking five metre scrum that ate up the last two minutes.
The perfect decoy, O'Driscoll drifted wide as Ian Madigan ran against the grain and under the uprights, drop goaling the conversion so they could chase a sixth try.
Still, with so much rugby ahead – Exeter, the Six Nations and a Lions captaincy in waiting – his fitness remains a genuine concern.
Scoring sequence– 2 mins:A Brew pen, 0-3; 8 mins:C Healy try, 5-3; J Sexton conv, 7-3; 11 mins:L Williams drop goal, 7-6; 23 mins:S Jennings try, 12-6; 34 mins:L Fitzgerald try, 17-6; J Sexton conv, 19-6; 40 mins:L Williams try, 19-11. halftime. 43 mins:R Kearney try, 24-11; J Sexton conv, 26-11; 57 mins:A Thomas pen, 26-14; 79 mins:I Madigan try, 31-14; I Madigan conv, 33-14.
Leinster:R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; R Ruddock, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements:H van der Merwe for C Healy (half-time), E Reddan for I Boss (53 mins), J Murphy for S Jennings (57 mins), B O’Driscoll for L Fitzgerald (61 mins), A Dundon for S Cronin (63 mins), T Denton for L Cullen (64 mins), M Bent for M Ross, I Madigan for J Sexton (both 71 mins).
Scarlets:L Williams; A Fenby, G Maule, S Williams, K Phillips; A Thomas, T Knoyle; P John, K Owens, J Adriaanse; G Earle, R Kelly; Rob McCusker (capt), J Turnbull, K Murphy. Replacements:G Davies for T Knoyle, J Davies for G Maule (both half-time), S Lee for J Adriaanse (49 mins), A Warren for S Williams (53 mins), J Snyman for R Kelly, T Vallejos for MMcCusker (both 59 mins), M Rees for K Owens, R Jones for P John (both 63 mins), R Kelly for T Vallejos (72 mins).
Referee:Jerome Garces (FFR).