Wednesday 16 January 2019

Merciless Blues book Bilbao date

Sexton salutes Henshaw as Leinster scalp Scarlets

Leinster's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The last time Leinster were in the final of Europe's premier competition it was known as the Heineken Cup, and their demolition of Ulster in that game in 2012 was the high point of their development as a professional outfit. Their third title in four years, they set the bar.

Nowadays it is the Champions Cup - different title and with a few adjustments to its running order, but it's the same gig. And after this five-tries-to-one 38-16 demolition of Scarlets, Leinster will be short odds in Bilbao next month to get back on the podium, and join Toulouse as the only club with four wins.

Having lost to Scarlets in the semi-final of the Guinness PRO14 last season, Leinster's challenge was to put into practice what they had learned from that defeat. "They were a little bit more direct," Scarlets captain Ken Owens said. "We defended them going out the back pretty well (back then) so it gave them quick ball which hurt our line-speed which is a big strength of our game. They always had a ball carrier plus two to secure that ball which took our tacklers out of the game. That stopped our line-speed. And I thought their kicking game was pretty good as well."

It was the complete performance, combining high-octane aggression with relentless accuracy. And it was all over bar the cheering of the Leinster fans in the 48,245 crowd as soon as Scott Fardy scored with half an hour left to make it 31-9.

While the Australian picked up the man-of-the-match award Leinster got huge value from Robbie Henshaw, who has managed to resurrect a season that looked over when he dislocated his shoulder in the Six Nations against Italy.

"He's got everything," Johnny Sexton said of his inside centre. "What an incredible athlete to spend the time out that he has and to come back and look like he'd never been away. So by far the most impressive performance from him."

The key moment for Leinster yesterday came with Fergus McFadden's try just before half-time, turning a 17-9 lead - which Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac would have been happy enough with - into a 24-9 advantage. "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. It's all done now. A great day and it was amazing the drive into the ground today. There was a lot of blue out on the streets.

"As we were going through the pool stages we spoke about all the little margins in the course of those six games and all the work that goes in to ensure you get a home quarter-final and do everything in your power, that's in your control, to try and get a semi-final in Ireland - somewhere - which was always going to be here. So yeah it was a fantastic occasion and the support we had . . . it goes so far in terms of fuelling the team. It's a slightly more difficult venue to get to in Bilbao but I hope we'll have great support there as well."

McFadden was the only obvious injury casualty, according to Cullen. He was injured in the process of scoring and will have a scan on an injury that it either calf or hamstring related.

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