Sexton makes his case for Twickenham berth
Leinster 27 Scarlets 14
After three wins already this season over the Scarlets, including an aggregate of 71 points in the two Heineken Cup ties before Christmas, a crowd of 13,819 came to the RDS last night looking for more of the same.
What they got was a fine game in cold but perfect conditions, and at the end of it Leinster are leading Munster on points difference in second place.
Moreover, their out-half, with a view to Ireland team selection on Tuesday, had delivered an excellent man-of-the-match performance which featured a try and six out of seven shots on goal.
Jonny Sexton did all that was asked of him, which is becoming a feature of his career. And the timing for Leinster is as good as it is for their number 10. The play-offs are tailor made for teams to come with a late run, when their star names are back on board, and Leinster are looking good.
Scarlets, meanwhile, started the night second from bottom of the table and needing to close the gap on Cardiff Blues with a view to European qualification. They played like a side who didn't deserve to be down in the depths. Had flanker Rob McCusker been able to gather after blocking down Shaun Berne, with eight minutes left, Scarlets would have made it a stressful finish for the home team. He had too much time to think about it.
The bad news for Michael Cheika were the injuries suffered by back-rower Sean O'Brien and tight-head Stan Wright. The latter was able to leave late in the day under his own steam but O'Brien was carried off inside five minutes with what was later confirmed as a season-ending broken leg. He was replaced by Stephen Keogh, who went on to have a fine match, filling in strongly on the freight work normally contracted to O'Brien.
It was central to Leinster's backs getting front-foot ball, which they used very well. Shane Horgan, despite one dodgy decision to grubber when a try-scoring pass seemed a better idea, had a strong performance, and both Girvan Dempsey and Fergus McFadden were very good.
The key period came in the first half when, after a rusty start -- they hadn't played in almost a month -- they overhauled an 8-3 deficit with a lovely try finished by Isa Nacewa after Eoin Reddan took a quick tap and Leinster stretched Scarlets with some brilliant rugby. Sexton's touchline conversion put them ahead for the second time and within four minutes of that score Girvan Dempsey put up a bomb that Rhys Priestland was blown up trying to defuse.
He got Dempsey and Fergus McFadden at the same time; then Nacewa arrived and by the time this group hit the deck, some 10 metres downfield, referee Andy McPherson was already under pressure to give Leinster something from the exchange. Which he did, for not releasing, and Sexton hit the target with a perfect strike.
With five minutes to go to the break, you felt that another Leinster score at that stage might take them into the comfort zone. Instead, Scarlets got another chance and Priestland was in decent enough shape to use it to reduce the deficit to just two points at 13-11.
Leinster ran them ragged in the second half, however, starting with Sexton cancelling out a Priestland penalty which had regained the lead for Scarlets, and then adding another two before debutant Andrew Conway put him over for a try late in the game. For the highly rated Blackrock player it promised to be a stunning debut, as Berne put him away with 40 metres to go. A brilliant tackle by Andy Fenby, however, hauled him down just short, whereupon Conway popped it up for Sexton.
Scorers -- Leinster:J Sexton try, 5 pens, con; I Nacewa try Scarlets: K Owens try; R Priestland 3 pens
Leinster: G Dempsey; S Horgan (A Conway 78), F McFadden, S Berne, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright (CJ van der Linde 74), B Jackman (R Strauss 64), CJ van der Linde (M Ross 64), D Toner, M O'Kelly, K McLaughlin, S O'Brien (S Keogh 5), S Jennings
Scarlets: D Newton; D Evans, R King, J Davies, A Fenby; R Priestland, M Roberts; I Thomas, K Owens, D Manu (J Thomas 18), D Day, D Welch (V Cooper 64), R McCusker, D Lyons (capt), J Edwards (J Turnbull 50)
Referee: A McPherson (Scotland)