Leo Cullen more than impressed with ruthless Leinster
Powerful second-half display sends out a strong message to other Pro12 contenders
Leinster’s Ross Byrne in action against Scarlets during the Guinness PRO12 clash at the RDS Arena. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Others may interpret the signs as ominous. Leinster clambered back to the summit of the Guinness Pro12, having been briefly overtaken by other results, with a modicum of discomfort.
The Scarlets had lost just one of their last 13 league matches, a run that included wins away to the Glasgow Warriors and Munster. But ultimately they were ripped asunder at the RDS; not for the whole game but in the 40-minutes after the interval the Irish province racked up 33-points without reply, turning a contest – Leinster led 12-9 at the interval – into a rout.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of the victory was the manner in which Leinster recalibrated their attacking patterns, understanding where the space on the pitch was and the most effective route.
The Scarlets had forced four turnovers in the first half, the speed of recycled ball stress-testing Leinster’s defence that creaked and groaned at times but never buckled. Dan Jones kicked three penalties and that was to be their only impact on the scoreboard.
The home side realised, particularly in the last 15 minutes of the first half, that to get off the line defensively, they needed to slow down Scarlets’ ruck ball. The knock-on effect was that they were able to pressurise the visitors in the backfield, forcing handling errors, rather than conceding soft gain-lines.
Aside from the odd line break, Leinster were faced by a largely impenetrable red wall in the first half as the Scarlets offered very few holes. James Davies made a nuisance of himself at the breakdown and this denied Leinster quick front-foot ball for the most part.
The weather conditions were also a factor, Leinster playing into a strong wind but on having it at their backs post interval, the dynamic of the match was irrevocably altered.
The Scarlets back three had to drop deeper but that left space in the wider channels and Ross Byrne, in tandem with namesake Adam, exploited this with a gorgeous array of cross-kicks, the genesis of tries scored by Rhys Ruddock – Fergus McFadden made a brilliant one-handed catch – Joey Carbery and replacement Ed Byrne.
Leinster coach Leo Cullen said: “There is really good recognition of where the space is and the relationship between Ross and the wingers is really coming on. Scarlets were getting at it tight defensively, so kicking to Adam’s side of the field in the second half got us a lot of really good rewards.
“Adam looked dangerous in the wide spaces, but really good kicking from Ross. It was very much about wearing them down. We felt that they were starting to tire on halftime. We got better field position [with] the wind at our back and the guys carried with a real intent.
“They said that themselves at half-time, making sure we keep working, winning collisions.”
Three tries within 13-minutes after the restart, to complement a brace scored by the excellent Luke McGrath in the first half, wrapped up the victory and the bonus point without rationing the entertainment value.
Man-of-the-match, McGrath was sharp and prescient in his ability to positively and consistently impact the game in one of his best performances for the province.
He said: “We probably rode our luck in defence in the first half, they made a lot of line-breaks and killed us out wide. It was nice to sort that out at half-time and just score tries off our defence, which we try and do the whole time.”
Ross Byrne and Adam Byrne, stood out in particular and the precision with which they combined was a lucrative source of points.
The overall pack performance was superb, powerful in the set piece and once they got a little rhythm and speed to the patterns impressive in punching holes. Peter Dooley, Haydn Triggs and the entire backrow of Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan were consistently conspicuous.
The bench also provided momentum and a highpoint of the night when replacement prop Ed Byrne, a brother of hooker Bryan, playing in his first home game for two-and-a-half years after successive cruciate knee ligament tears, popped up to score a try.
The applause was genuinely warm on his introduction and was ratcheted up several notches when he dotted down.
The transformation in the nature of the game had been remarkable. Scarlets were left beaten and bedraggled, coach Wayne Pivac withdrawing several frontline players as the match wore on and Leinster discovered the attacking swagger that has seen them record five bonus point victories in succession.
The home was fizzing, front-foot ball, dynamic carries on the fringe, excellent vision and accuracy with the kicking game and also in prising holes in a tiring Scarlets side and they sustained that effervescence to the final whistle.
Leinster return to the RDS in three weeks’ time to take on the Cardiff Blues, the weekend before Wasps arrive in Dublin for a Champions Cup quarter-final.
Cullen spoke afterwards about how the make-up of those teams will change fundamentally for the most part but also of the pride he felt in the players, young and less so, who had ensured that Leinster are where they want to be when the international contingent returns.
“The players are setting very high standards now. They did a lot of work as a big group during pre-season, having that time in the group is really important so they set out the way they want to play and standards. It’s an encouraging sign.”
No arguments there.