Saturday 18 January 2020

Leinster unleash awesome show of force to shred Scarlets

Leinster 38 Scarlets 16

Leinster’s Fergus McFadden scores a try
Leinster’s Fergus McFadden scores a try
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It's hard to beat sunny Saturdays in April and a European semi-final at Lansdowne Road. Some 48,000 - a good lump of them in red - turned up to see the latest instalment in one of the more intriguing rivalries in this corner of the world.

If your primary wish had been to see a game left in the balance until the stewards were in their end-of-match positions, then it didn't quite hit the mark. But if you consider value for money to be an afternoon watching one of Europe's best at the top of their game then you would have gone home happy.

Leinster have it all going on: grunt, gas, creativity, and a set-piece platform to launch it from wherever and whenever they think is best. Their lineout playbook yesterday was first class and kept Scarlets running backwards, soaking tackles.

Oh, and Leinster's overall decision-making is not too shabby either. Yesterday they got the balance just right between bullying their opponents and playing with them. You suspect they got more enjoyment out of the former.

None got it closer to the money than Scott Fardy. From well before the final whistle, he had one paw on the man of the match award. And this on a day when every one of the Leinster forwards would have been very happy with the way they played. As a pack they conceded two scrum penalties. Neither at any great cost. Not a bad afternoon's work.

And behind the scrum there was a handful of outstanding performers. Johnny Sexton had yet another big game, including 100 per cent accuracy off the tee, helping him past the 600 points mark in this competition. Robbie Henshaw's return was timely, giving Leinster guaranteed go-forward down that channel and putting Scarlets on the back foot. And with all that ball coming their way Jamison Gibson-Park was fast and accurate with his service.

Leinster's James Tracy and Scarlets' Dan Jones. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire
Leinster's James Tracy and Scarlets' Dan Jones. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire

The manner of this will install Leinster as favourites regardless of who wins in Bordeaux this afternoon. The winning margin in a semi-final was bettered only by the 46-6 demolition by Saracens of Clermont in 2014, and the second highest semi-final points total after that fixture.

By half-time, Leinster's work looked done, at 24-9. And nothing illustrated it more than the manner of their third try, the conversion of which by Sexton brought a close to the first half.

"It was a huge moment in the game," Leo Cullen said. "But then how we managed the second half was important. I thought the guys controlled the game well, played in the right areas, and put the squeeze on Scarlets. It frustrated them and didn't give them access to our half of the field."

The score was 17-9 in Leinster's favour - the excellent James Ryan and Cian Healy got over from close range inside the half hour - as we edged towards the half-time whistle. And that too had told a story, for despite getting off to a flyer with a fine Leigh Halfpenny penalty from distance, Scarlets were working off 38 per cent possession for the rest of the half. And what they got of that in Leinster territory it offered up only another two shots to the wing.

Leinster's Jack McGrath tackles Scarlets' Leigh Halfpenny. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire
Leinster's Jack McGrath tackles Scarlets' Leigh Halfpenny. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire

He is a fantastic asset, truly one of the great goal-kickers in the history of the game, but you need him converting tries, not kicking penalties, if you want to win European titles, or at least get to the final. By the time Scarlets got one - coincidentally through Tadhg Beirne - their sole target was to get their half of the scoreboard into double figures.

So as Leinster got yet another foothold in Scarlets' 22 with the clock counting down they ran through a series of punishing carries, with a bit of variety thrown in, to work their way to the red line and force the defence into a state of narrowness that had to be exploited. Two wide passes found McFadden in plenty of space, and while finishing speed ain't really his thing, he touched this one down in the corner - taking a game-ending dunt from Steff Evans in the process.

McFadden's injury brought Jordan Larmour on from the start of the second half, and what it cost Leinster in aggression and sheer focus - the hallmarks of McFadden's game - it changed Leinster's pace on that flank. It also gave them a player not short on power. Larmour wasn't long on the field when he stole the ball in contact from Rhys Patchell, which ultimately led to the game-ending try, from Scott Fardy, on 50 minutes.

Sexton had targeted Patchell from the start of the second period. It was simple and accurate: if Patchell fielded it successfully then it would be for a mark which he would, more than likely, kick back to Leinster. If he lost it? Well, you saw what happened. Sexton and Dan Leavy did really well in the quick-time shunt towards the Scarlets line and Fardy was over.

When Sexton got over himself on the hour mark his reaction reflected the drive in this team go get back to their high watermark of 2012. Their outhalf and leader won't be around forever, so you can imagine the hurry-up he's giving the rest of them to make this time count. A Grand Slam season is, so far, on target to become the gift that keeps on giving.

Scorers - Leinster: Sexton try, pen, 5 cons, Ryan, Healy, McFadden, Fardy try each. Scarlets: Beirne try; Patchell pen, con

Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton (capt) (J Carbery 62), J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy 72); C Healy (J McGrath 53), S Cronin (J Tracey 58), T Furlong (A Porter 62), D Toner, J Ryan, S Fardy, J Murphy, D Leavy (J Conan 66)

Scarlets: R Patchell; L Halfpenny, S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt)(R Elias 53), S Lee (W Kruger 53), T Beirne, D Bulbring (L Rawlins 55), A Shingler (S Cummins 67), J Barclay, J Davies

Referee: R Poite (France)

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