Scarlets leave Leinster’s season once again doused in regret
Welsh side deserve their place in final as thoughts turn to injured Irish Lions players
Scarlets’ Gareth Davies celebrates on his way to scoring their third try in the Guinness Pro 12 semi-final at the RDS. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Leinster 15 Scarlets 27
Another Leinster season doused in regret and failure. Two semi-final defeats tell no lies. For all the massive leaps in performance, for all the progress of young talent due to the coaching expertise of Stuart Lancaster, Leo Cullen’s second season in charge ends no better than any under Matt O’Connor.
Fourteen-man Scarlets constructed a lead that an uninspired Johnny Sexton was unable to whittle down.
The individual cost of this defeat, initially at least, looks enormous. The Lions props in waiting, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, were forced off with serious looking elbow and leg injuries.
Rhys Ruddock and Luke McGrath needed Head Injury Assessment with neither returning.
Also, the magnificent Garry Ringrose couldn’t play to the finish.
Leinster, simply put, couldn’t match Scarlets’ intensity or contain their offloading game in opening 40 minutes.
Lions watch was already going poorly with Seán O’Brien pulling up lame earlier in the day and after only three minutes – just as Marius Mitrea was correctly disallowing Isa Nacewa’s try due to a forward pass by Sexton – Jack McGrath looked in considerable pain.
The prop soldiered on for six minutes but seemed to pull out of the sort of rucks he normally obliterates.
As Steffan Evans – an inspirational figure in the free-wheeling Scarlets blitz before he was sent off – sauntered back over halfway following his brilliant try, the prospective Lions loosehead was replaced by Cian Healy.
Healy arrived and charged about like the bull we all remember before the surgeries. One man down, opportunity knocking for another.
Sexton, to his cost, was also trying to spark the collective. After running back a poor clearing kick he battered into Gareth Davies. The ruck rolled over Sexton, who stayed down, clearly hurt, so Nacewa was forced to take over the place kicking.
Luke McGrath was the next victim, seemingly concussed after scooping up Scott Williams’s fumble and dashing within three metres of the try line where Steffan Evans collared him. The subsequent pile up ended his night as Liam Williams brilliantly stole possession.
Next came a try direct from the Lancaster playbook. After some intricate passing, twice involving Jamison Gibson-Park, reverse passes by Sexton then Jack Conan gave Ringrose a sight of the line. The ruthless centre accelerated before carrying Johnny McNicholl over.
Nacewa converted to make it 10-7 but the 15,861 crowd couldn’t settle into their normal rhythm at their seemingly impenetrable fortress. No, big Welsh flanker Aaron Shingler had other ideas, pounding through midfield and linking with Gareth Davies before fending Gibson-Park for another quality Scarlets try.
The visitors were playing with supreme confidence (Rhys Patchell drop goaled the conversion) and not four minutes passed before Scott Williams, James Davies and Steffan Evans offloaded out of despairing tackles to send Gareth Davies clear.
Patchell made it 21-10 as Land Of My Fathers broke out behind the far posts.
Next, Sexton got in a scrap with Gareth Davies. It was good for the atmosphere with referee Marius Mitrea judging Sexton the innocent party so Leinster cleared their line.
The score they needed before the turn never materialised but Scarlets did permanently lose a man when Steffan Evans was red carded for spear tackling Ringrose.
“Clear lift, twist and it’s clearly on his head,” Mitrea told Scarlets captain John Barclay. “I’ve not choice.”
Leinster took their precious time to may hay as the Scarlets returned for the second stanza with a ruthless defensive attitude.
Reinforcements were needed. Dan Leavy immediately upped the physical stakes, arriving for Ruddock, but James Davies was lording it at the breakdown while Hayden Triggs got the biggest ovation Ballsbridge has offered a departing foreigner since Rocky Elsom conquered Europe in 2009. In came Dev Toner. Nothing changed.
The turning point appeared to come on 56 minutes when Ringrose shot out of the line to dislodge the ball from Jonathan Davies just outside the Scarlets 22.
But when Sexton put a shocking punt out on the full the game genuinely looked beyond a Leinster side who performed way below their usual standards when it mattered the most.
Then Furlong hobbled away.
Finally, with 63 minutes on the clock, the Scarlets line was breached.
Leavy was held up short by enough red jersey to allow Conan pound over from the next carry.
Nacewa, almost incomprehensibly, chipped the conversion off the upright.
A six-point game, 15 minutes to play and considering the numerical advantage the odds were heavily stacked in Leinster’s favour.
But as seconds ticked away Wayne Pivac’s well coached outfit turned the screw. A scrum penalty in the 70th minute was slotted by Liam Williams – Patchell had gone off – to make it a two-score game.
Tadhg Beirne, a player cut by Leinster last season, came up with a crucial turnover as Ringrose was next to limp away.
The departing Zane Kirchner arrived to fling the ball forward and into touch.
Maybe the Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon took too much out of them.
Whatever the reason, the deserving team march on to the Aviva stadium next weekend to face Munster or the Ospreys.
SCARLETS: J McNicholl; L Williams, J Davies, S Williams, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; R Evans, R Elias, S Lee; L Rawlins, T Beirne; A Shingler, J Davies, J Barclay (capt).
Replacements: J Evans for G Davies (50 mins), W Jones for R Evans (55 mins), H Parkes for R Patchell (60 mins), W Boyde for J Barclay (62 mins), W Kruger for S Lee, D Bulbring for L Rawlins (both 64 mins), E Phillips for R Elias (70 mins), DTH van der Merwe for J Davies (79 mins).
Red card: Steffan Evans (37 mins).
LEINSTER: J Carbery; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong; R Molony, H Triggs; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan.
Replacements: C Healy for J McGrath (9 mins, inj), J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (22 mins, HIA), D Leavy for R Ruddock (46 mins, HIA), D Toner for H Triggs (50 mins), M Bent for T Furlong (60 mins), R Strauss for J Tracy (70 mins), Z Kirchner for G Ringrose (73 mins), R Byrne for J Sexton (79 mins).
Referee: M Mitrea (Italy).