Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sexton keeps Blues ticking over

Scarlets 13
Leinster 20

Matt Lloyd at Parc y Scarlets

Leinster may have got caught in traffic before arriving at Parc y Scarlets but the bandwagon rumbles on in the Heineken Cup.

Joe Schmidt's preparations were thrown in the air after the team coach was delayed in congestion on its way to the game. But the holders still managed to get the job done in Wales as they stretched their remarkable unbeaten run in the competition to 17 games.

Isa Nacewa scored their only try, out-jumping George North in the 11th minute to a kick by Jonathan Sexton, who finished with 15 points, though this win was more about sheer stubbornness, discipline and a devastating scrum as any points scorer. Never more so than after Gareth Maule scorched past Brian O'Driscoll to score and blow apart a game in which they rarely exerted any control.

Leinster have yet to hit their straps but have two wins under their belts before back-to-back ties with Clermont-Auvergne in December that are likely to decide their fate as they chase an historic third successive title.

"We would love to play attractive rugby all the time but winning games is the priority in the Heineken Cup, Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt said following the final whistle.

"We were frustrated after going 14-0 up to find ourselves in a position where we were fighting for the game after their try. We denied them a platform at the scrum to come back but there has to be because we can't keep surviving these skinny margins."

Scarlets claimed a losing bonus but frustratingly saw Rhys Priestland miss nine points and a home defeat in a group such as this leaves them a daunting task to qualify.

"We knew we had to win that game and we didn't so that leaves us effectively out of the group. But we will still have an impact on the group until we are mathematically out," said Scarlets coach Simon Easterby, who was honest in his assessment of his side's indiscipline at times.

"We have shown we can compete for periods but you cannot afford to make so many errors and concede so many penalties. In that respect we got what we deserved.

"Leinster have won games by narrow margins in a row but the making of a good side is when you can do that when not playing at their best."

Leinster may have arrived late but they were gifted an easy introduction with a penalty from the kick-off that allowed Sexton to pass the 350 tournament points mark.

They capitalised on a disastrous 10-minute spell for Wales star George North. Nacewa slipped through his grasp and Leinster would have scored had Kevin McLaughlin not spilt possession.

Sexton's cross-field kick should have been easy pickings for the 6ft 4ins wing but North instead turned his focus on man-handling his opponent who was not to be denied once he gathered beyond the try line.

Sexton pushed his conversion wide but was handed a further effort moments later when North flung his pass to the ankles of Andrew Fenby.

While their backs were fumbling, the Scarlets forwards put up a determined fight to impress Wales coach Warren Gatland watching on. Matthew Rees led a lineout drive yet with North lurking, Scott Williams opted to kick and Eoin Reddan snuffed out the danger.

Priestland, short with a long-range effort in the first half, saw another effort fail to go the distance. As though to exacerbate the point, Sexton fielded a clearance from Liam Williams and coolly struck a drop goal from 50 metres out.

Yet fortunes soon changed for both players. Sexton missed for the first time on 52 minutes and his sliced kick handed Scarlets an attacking lineout from which Maule blew the game open.

The 24-year-old was only starting due the loss of Jonathan Davies but did enough with a half-step to put Brian O'Driscoll on the back foot from which even the great man could not recover.

Priestland suddenly found his range to convert from the close to the touchline and, from nowhere, the game was alive at 14-10. The home crowd allowed themselves to believe but the gulf in class on the replacements' bench was to prove decisive.

Leinster added front-rows Richardt Strauss and Heinke van der Merwe to effectively render the scrums a non-contest and Sexton duly kicked the penalties that resulted.

Priestland missed a crucial kick that could have kept alive a flicker of hope though his second successful penalty -- after Ian Madigan was shown a yellow card for tipping opposite number Liam Williams as he leapt for the ball -- five minutes from time was enough to earn a losing bonus point when Sexton fired wide of the posts late on.

Scorers -- Scarlets: G Maule try, R Priestland 2 pens, con. Leinster: I Nacewa try, J Sexton 4 pens, d-g.

Scarlets: L Williams; G North, G Maule, S Williams, A Fenby (M Stoddart 68); R Priestland, T Knoyle (G Davies 54); P John, M Rees (K Owens 59), S Lee (D Manu 59), G Earle (T Vallejos, h-t), J Snyman (J Edwards 65), A Shingler, R McCusker (capt), J Turnbull.

Leinster: I Madigan; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 72); C Healy (H van der Merwe 63), S Cronin (R Strauss 55), M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Browne (D Toner 55), K McLaughlin, J Heaslip, S Jennings.

Referee: Greg Garner (RFU)

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