Irrepressible Leinster storm into Champions Cup final
Leinster make hay in Dublin sunshine as Scarlets blown away
Leinster players congratulate try scorer James Ryan/Morgan Treacy
Leinster 38 Scarlets 16
This was a Leinster performance for the ages, an evisceration of the Guinness Pro14 champions, who were taken apart with a feral intensity, underpinned by a largely unswerving focus, precision and execution. Leo Cullen’s side are heading for Bilbao and a fourth Champions Cup final.
It was a brutal demolition of a very good team who weren’t given a sniff on the day. Leinster have enjoyed some standout displays this season in beating the Exeter Chiefs twice, Montpellier twice, the Glasgow Warriors twice and the two-time defending champions, Saracens; this was comparable with the best of those days.
The match was won up front where the Leinster eight decimated their opponents, punching hole-after-hole on the fringes until the Scarlets simply ran out of bodies. There was a training ground precision to the manner in which Leinster reeled off their patterns, some of the credit for the victory due to the coaching team.
Leinster exposed the Scarlets weak points and rarely loosened their grip, continually squeezing until the tries came; the game was over after 60-minutes. The home side scored five tries and it was fitting that the pack contributed the lion’s share, through Cian Healy, James Ryan and Scott Fardy, the latter a thoroughly deserved man-of-the-match, who was outstanding on both sides of the ball, knocking tacklers aside and pulverising red shirted carriers.
If he was in the van, then James Ryan, who still hasn’t lost a senior match, was only a millimetre behind; the pack to a man won their personal duels. Jonathan Sexton managed the game beautifully - he contributed 18 points, a try, a penalty and five conversions - and Robbie Henshaw managed an astonishing performance in his first game back since damaging his shoulder 10-weeks ago. His ability to thunder over the gain-line was central to several scores.
Henshaw and Garry Ringrose offered a defensive masterclass in midfield, when Scarlets sporadically mustered a threat, while Leinster's general work at the breakdown was excellent. Poite allowed the ball carrier an extra half a second and Leinster utilised this time, while the clearing out was ruthlessly aggressive.
Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong took the direct route more often than not, Devin Toner too, Sean Cronin stretched his legs from time to time while Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy worked hard to sustain that forward momentum and protect possession.
Fergus McFadden’s deserved his try for sharp work before retiring injured at half-time. The Scarlets weren’t allowed access to the game apart from through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny, their backs denied any decent ball. In the end Leinster won as they pleased.
Scott Fardy was penalised for a high tackle to give Scarlets wing Leigh Halfpenny the opportunity to grab the first points of the match, which he availed of with a thumping, long range effort from 46-metres.
Leinster’s response was eloquent on nine minutes. From a beautifully executed lineout move, Sexton found Isa Nacewa on the wraparound and quick hands from Rob Kearney sent McFadden scampering for the line. Although the cover got to the Leinster wing, from the ensuing ruck Ryan forced his way over.
The Leinster secondrow looked to have been tackled and there was a suspicion of a double movement but after consulting with the television match official Philippe Bouhoure, referee Romain Poite awarded the try. Sexton added the conversion.
McFadden was again centrally involved shortly after, doing superbly to turn and gather a Scott Williams chip for Steff Evans as the Scarlets ran the ball from their line. Ryan and Henshaw both made inroads before in desperation Scarlets conceded a penalty at a ruck. Sexton made no mistake from 18-metres to nudge Leinster into an 10-3 lead on 18-minutes.
A succession of errors from the kickoff gave Scarlets a chance to reduce the deficit, the last of which was Healy being penalised for dropping his elbow to the floor at a scrum. Halfpenny drove the ball straight between the posts, a punitive reminder for Leinster about the importance of good discipline.
The home side responded in a positive vein, the lineout the fulcrum for another attack in which Henshaw and Jordi Murphy both carried beyond the gain-line. From quick ruck ball inside the Scarlets’ 22 McFadden did enough to put off Evans from Sexton’s towering cross-kick and Leinster were awarded a five metre scrum.
The Leinster pack got a nudge on, McFadden came off his blindside wing and was catapulted through the contact by Henshaw who had latched onto his teammate. Two rucks later and Fardy was deemed to have been held up over the line but Poite went back for a penalty and the home side elected for a scrum.
Twice the Scarlets defended brilliantly to keep Leinster out but they couldn’t stop Healy’s power surge and pirouette to force his way over the line. Sexton was again successful with the conversion as Leinster forged ahead 17-6 just shy of the half an hour mark.
Sexton and then Leavy conceded penalties to allow Scarlets access to the Leinster 22 again and concerted pressure forced the home side to cough up another which Halfpenny kicked. All three of the penalties that Leinster had conceded in the first 33-minutes of the match had been within Halfpenny’s kicking ambit and had cost them points.
Leinster came back and pounded away at the line, Henshaw with a wonderful line, Ryan, Furlong, Healy involved and then Ringrose showed vision and accuracy with a wonderful long pass to send McFadden over in the corner. Evans caught the winger as he was dotting down. Sexton’s touchline conversion was a beauty to send the home side into the interval 24-9 in front.
Leinster might have scored a try soon after the interval but after more pressure, Furlong lost the ball in contact just shy of the line. Back they came, Cronin racing through a gap, Jordan Larmour showing great footwork and balance but crucially a poor decision to look for the replacement allowed the Scarlets to escape, a feat they completed when awarded a penalty.
It was a temporary respite as Leinster regrouped to score a gorgeous try on 50-minutes. Larmour, on at half-time for McFadden, pickpocketed Rhys Patchell on the way down from fielding a Sexton up-and-under. The outhalf was back in situ to make a break into the Scarlets 22. Leavy and Ryan kept the momentum going and the latter’s beautifully timed offload allowed Fardy to power through the last defenders. Sexton’s conversion made it 31-9 and the supporters, if not the players, could turn their thoughts to Bilbao.
The Leinster outhalf and captain on the day signed off his afternoon with the perfect embellishment, a try and conversion on 61 minutes, again the product of coruscating carrying from his teammates; the Scarlets simply ran out of numbers. The home side could have tacked on more tries but it hardly mattered.
Beirne’s late try won’t have offered much consolation on a day when Leinster underlined their pedigree in spectacular style.
Scoring sequence - 5 mins: Halfpenny penalty, 0-3; 9: Ryan try, Sexton conversion, 7-3; 18: Sexton penalty, 10-3; 21: Halfpenny penalty, 10-6; 27: Healy try, Sexton conversion, 17-6; 33: Halfpenny penalty, 17-9; 40 (+1): McFadden try, Sexton conversion, 24-9. Half-time: 24-9. 50: Fardy try, Sexton conversion, 31-9; 59: Sexton try, Sexton conversion 38-9; 79: Beirne try, Halfpenny try, 38-16.
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton (capt), J Gibson-Park; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, D Leavy, J Murphy. Replacements: J Larmour for McFadden half-time; J McGrath for Healy 53 mins; J Tracy for Cronin 57 mins; J Carbery for Sexton 61 mins; A Porter for Furlong 61 mins; J Conan for Leavy 66 mins; N McCarthy for Gibson-Park; R Molony for Ryan 71 mins.
Scarlets: R Patchell; L Halfpenny, S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), S Lee; T Beirne, D Bulbring; A Shingler, J Davies, J Barclay. Replacements: W Kruger for Lee 51 mins; R Elias for Owens 51 mins; S Cummins for Bulbring 54 mins; L Rawlins for Shingler 66 mins; A Davies for G Davies 70 mins; W Boyde for Barclay 70 mins; S Hughes for Williams 74 mins; D Evans for R Evans 74 mins.
Referee: R Poite (France)