Leinster gameplan gets them comfortably into the final
Scarlets dismantled with ruthless efficiency as Leinster learn from previous humiliation
Leinster’s Irish fly-half Johnny Sexton celebrates with teammates after scoring a try during the European Champions Cup rugby union semi-final between Leinster and Scarlets at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Barry Cronin/AFP/Getty Images
Leinster 38 Scarlets 16
It’s rare in sport that the alchemy of the training ground is almost flawlessly replicated in a match environment, but there was a golden hue to Leinster’s utterly compelling victory at the Aviva stadium as they negotiated a passage to the Champions Cup final in Bilbao with ruthless efficiency.
There was an unswerving focus and primal intensity at the core of Leinster’s brutal pummelling of the Scarlets. The coaches devised, the players implemented and the supporters celebrated a gameplan that clinically dismantled a hitherto very good Scarlets team, the visitors eviscerated up front, to a point where only some gutsy last-ditch defence kept the scoreline on the less-embarrassing side of 50 points.
Leinster understood how the Scarlets felt at the final whistle because they had walked that mile, abject in defeat the previous season, when the Welsh club rocked up to the RDS and beat them convincingly in a Guinness Pro12 semi-final; they did so with 14 players for most of the game.
This wasn’t about revenge per se; it was a case for the Irish province of absorbing the lessons, repairing the fault-lines and identifying the incremental improvements, individually and collectively, required to change the outcome. This they accomplished spectacularly.
Leinster’s outhalf and captain on the day, Jonathan Sexton, articulated the players’ mindset going into the game when he revealed: “It was one of our best performances of the season; they are a quality team. It was important that we looked at last year’s performance against them and learned from it.
“It showed in our performance that we really did learn from that game. We will maybe look back at that game last year as a turning point for us as a group. Defeats hurt and it’s important for the young lads to learn and also for the older lads. We hadn’t tasted semi-final defeats ever, some of us.
“We had to know what that felt like and we had to learn from it as well. I said to the lads before the game we need to play well, that’s all we need to worry about, and if we do, we have a chance and luckily we did that.”
Sexton was at his imperious best, organising, chivvying and moving his team swiftly and efficiently as if Lansdowne Road was his personal chess board. He racked up 18 points, the celebration of his try an opportunity to release the pent-up emotion of the impending victory, to complement a pitch-perfect kicking display.
There was still time for him to gently chide Jordan Larmour, a half-time replacement for the injured try-scorer Fergus McFadden, for one decision close to the Scarlets’ line. Sexton smiled: “He [LARMOUR]backed himself against 10 Scarlets on the short side when there was a six-man overlap on the other side! I said to him, ‘Did you call for the ball?’ He said [excitedly], ‘Yeah, yeah.’ But that’s the beauty of those young lads. They back themselves.”
The Leinster outhalf would be the first to acknowledge that the garlands of victory primarily belong to the pack: to the tyros James Ryan, Dan Leavy and Tadgh Furlong, to their mentors, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy and Cian Healy, and to the facilitators, Sean Cronin and Jordi Murphy, whose selfless graft on behalf of the team provided the glue to their utter dominance, in the set-piece, the breakdown and at pretty much every collision point.
Jamison Gibson-Park’s snappy service and decision-making passed on the benefits that the pack had accrued. Robbie Henshaw’s display was little short of astonishing given his injury sabbatical, and, when the Scarlets did sporadically threaten, in tandem with his midfield partner Garry Ringrose, he chaperoned them out of harm’s way. Everyone contributed in a positive vein all the way back to Rob Kearney, master of all he surveyed on a relatively quiet afternoon.
It should be noted too that this was a victory for head coach Leo Cullen and his cohorts in the backroom team who weighed and measured the Scarlets and identified where they would be found wanting. Ryan’s try got Leinster up and running on the scoreboard, the genesis a slick lineout move, a strike play from the backs, eventually finished off by the secondrow’s second surge.
Power and pirouette
Healy’s power and pirouette got him over the line, while McFadden’s first-half injury-time finish sent Leinster to the dressingroom in chipper form and 24-9 ahead. Fardy powered through the remnants of the thin red line following a gorgeous offload from Ryan, and Sexton was next to spot a chink of daylight in the Scarlets’ rearguard – a speck on the horizon by the time Tadgh Beirne scored a late consolation try.
Leinster’s run to the final in beating the English Premiership title holders, the two-time and defending champions and last season’s Pro12 winners represents a remarkable run, but they are feats that require the imprimatur of one final win, in respect. Only then will they be able to bask in their achievements – appropriately enough, in Bilbao.
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)