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Fitting finale to an outstanding campaign for PRO14 sides

Jonny Sexton of Leinster celebrates. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Jonny Sexton of Leinster celebrates. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

This has been a hell of a season for the Guinness PRO14. Expansion into the southern hemisphere, new TV deals that will increase the revenue for each club, three of the four semi-finalists in the Champions Cup, the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup winners, and an abundance of Lions who drew the series in New Zealand last summer.

Yesterday was a great opportunity to showcase that level of quality - we had the two most consistent teams over the course of this season in both competitions.

Leinster put in what was probably the performance of the season by any team across Europe when they demolished the Scarlets 38-16 in the Champions Cup semi-final, and the big question was what did the Scarlets brains trust, headed by Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones, learn from that clash and could they make the changes necessary to turn the tables.

Isa Nacewa captained the team on his last appearance, having first arrived in Dublin in 2008. I was lucky enough to have played with him for three seasons and despite him having retired and come back I don't think any foreign player has had as big an influence on and off the pitch.

With Leinster providing so many players for the Irish team he has had a key role as a senior player during the November internationals and the Six Nations when the average age and experience level of his team-mates drops significantly.

He always performed at a high level and he will be missed badly by Leinster as those 'legacy' players are very hard to find. It was unfortunate that his contribution yesterday only lasted 18 minutes before his calf injury flared up.

The Scarlets started the game with huge energy and put more players into the tackle area to try and stop Leinster's power game. However, this left space in the back field which in the first half Leinster, who were playing against the wind, exploited through contestable garryowens from Sexton, chased brilliantly by Rob Kearney, or grubber kicks from James Lowe and Garry Ringrose. They targeted Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny.

Leinster's first entry into the Scarlets 22 came from a high kick regathered by Kearney and Leinster put 13 phases together before the Scarlets conceded a penalty that Sexton kicked.

The second time Leinster entered the scoring zone they showed that clinical edge that has been the feature of Leinster and Irish rugby this season by turning territory into seven points, building 23 phases before Devin Toner powered over from close range.

In the second half Leinster built more pressure and territory and Scarlets defended manfully before Leinster's lineout maul gave Sean Cronin the opportunity to scamper in for a try.

It was interesting that despite a directive coming from World Rugby this week that they were going to trial lowering the allowed tackle height, the match officials yesterday weren't as concerned about high shots and it was only when the TMO highlighted a high tackle by Scott Williams on Sexton in the 51st minute that we had one penalised.

Cronin's try forced the Scarlets to chase the game and put more players into the front line, which meant that when Hadleigh Parkes kicked to Jordan Larmour he spotted an acre of space in the back field and showed outstanding pace and skill to pick the ball up one-handed for a brilliant try.

By doing the double Leinster have shown how strong their culture is; it's impressive how they were able to deal with the high of winning the European Cup and then reset and win their domestic competition.

They will lose some key men. Nacewa, Richardt Strauss and Jordi Murphy will be missed, and Bath-bound Girvan Dempsey has also been a key figure as a player and a coach. But the production line seems strong and they are the ones the rest of Europe have to catch, and they aren't showing any signs of slowing down.

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