Sunday 8 December 2019

Leinster's heads still above water with D-day looming

Leinster 33
Scarlets 14

Leo Cullen gets ready to take on Tomas Vallejos in the Heineken Cup Pool 5 clash at the RDS last night.
Leo Cullen gets ready to take on Tomas Vallejos in the Heineken Cup Pool 5 clash at the RDS last night.

Brendan Fanniing

The mood in the Leinster camp was mixed last night: glad that they had produced a level of intensity for 50 minutes before a full house of 18,200 at the RDS to sort a winning bonus point; a bit deflated that they were unable to crack on from there, with almost 35 minutes to play, and inject some vitality into their flagging try-scoring stats.

They are, as coach Joe Schmidt said afterwards, vulnerable – likely to be overtaken by something outside their control this afternoon, starting in Murrayfield when Munster take on Edinburgh, knowing that a five-pointer would put them ahead of Leinster in the pursuit of one of the best runners-up spots in the knockout stages.

"Yeah it would really help if they could throw that one," he said – in jest – of Munster's mission. "If they get a five-pointer there . . . that makes us very vulnerable to them getting two five-pointers and us trying to work our way back here for an Amlin final. And that would be tough enough because some of those clubs who have qualified are tough."

It won't be until close of business today, when Toulouse finish up with Treviso in the last match, that Schmidt knows what chance his side have of staying in the competition. What was encouraging for him was the quality of rugby they played last night, in good enough conditions, to get the first part of the deal sorted – the winning bonus.

Earlier in the week Rob Kearney had made a point of saying how Leinster would first try and win the game and then look to add on the extras. Well, the plan changed somewhere along the way, if it existed at all. Schmidt said that so successful were their early lineout drives that it encouraged the players to sprint after the bonus from the first opportunity.

Three times in the first 24 minutes they passed up kickable penalties, with the breeze behind them, in favour of lineouts close to the line. And two of the three times they led to tries – first for Cian Healy, who showed time and again to carry ball, after just nine minutes, which tuned the crowd into chase.

They missed out on the next one, but the quality of a lineout maul on 24 minutes was so good that Shane Jennings got over without any trouble. On 33 minutes Luke Fitzgerald made it three, when he touched down at the corner after great work by Jamie Heaslip.

It was a mystery how the No 8 and loose head were both passed over in favour of Fitzgerald for man-of-the-match. Rhys Ruddock too, stepping up for Sean O'Brien who was a late withdrawal because of illness, did a fine job along with Jennings in an outstanding back-row effort.

Certainly Fitzgerald was quick, sharp and hungry for work – all very welcome – but he butchered a chance in the second half with Isa Nacewa outside him that was unsettling it was so straightforward.

And they all counted in the greater scheme of things, for Leinster were desperately trying to squeeze everything they could from a contest which, to Scarlets' credit, was hot and heavy. It will take Leinster a few days to recover from this – certainly Jonny Sexton, who directed the operation very well, and Fergus McFadden, both of whom took heavy knocks.

The away team had opened and closed the scoring in the first half, with an Aled Thomas penalty and a Liam Williams try – from a lovely cross-kick by Scott Williams – but they never looked likely to get out of the RDS with a win, which would have been useless to them in any case.

Still, they were stubborn to the last, and flanker Sione Tamani put himself about a fair bit. When Leinster secured the bonus point on 44 minutes, with Rob Kearney stepping past two tackles to score after Heaslip set him up off the back of a scrum, the crowd expected an avalanche.

Instead they got nothing more until the final minute when replacement Ian Madigan scored his sixth try of the season. He is lethal off scrums if afforded any space, and once he stepped inside the cover he was gone. The return wasn't what Leinster wanted, or what their early assaults suggested, but it was something to be going on with in Exeter at the weekend.

"We'll get the glue and sticky tape out to make sure we have a team to train on Tuesday and Thursday, and then we'll chase the opportunity with some ambition on Saturday," Schmidt said. We'll know later today exactly what they are chasing. They are not out of it yet.

Scorers – Leinster: I Madigan try, con; C Healy, L Fitzgerald, R Kearney try each; J Sexton 3 cons. Scarlets: L Williams try, d-g; A Thomas 2 pens)

Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald(B O'Driscoll 62); J Sexton (I Madigan 72), I Boss (E Reddan 54); C Healy (H van der Merwe h-t), S Cronin (A Dundon 64), M Ross (M Bent 72), L Cullen (capt)(T Denton 64), D Toner, R Ruddock, J Heaslip, S Jennings (J Murphy 58)

Scarlets: L Williams; A Fenby, G Maule (J Davies ht), S Williams (A Warren 54), K Phillips; A Thomas, T Knoyle (G Davies ht); P John (R Jones 64), K Owens (M rees 64), J Adriaanse (S Lee 49), G Earle, R Kelly (J Snyman 59) V , S Timani, R McCusker (T Vallejos 59, R Kelly 72), J Turnbull

Referee: J Garces (France)

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