Brent Pope: Leinster left soul-searching after poor show against Scarlets
AS they had done against Clermont in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, a well below par Leinster side could not recover from a disastrous start to win Friday’s Pro 12 semi-final.
In the end the way they played they didn’t deserve to.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen will be gutted, especially after a season that had promised so much yet again ended on a sour note with a loss to the Scarlets a team that just a few months ago they had walloped out the gate.
Take nothing away from the visitors they thoroughly deserved their historic win, especially after having to play the second half with just 14 men after try scoring winger Steff Evans was red-carded for a dangerous tip tackle on Garry Ringrose.
It’s the oldest cliché in sport, but Scarlets wanted it more. This was knockout rugby, and what went before does not matter, and while the Scarlets performed, Leinster played at a level well below what was expected of them, with far too many turnovers, handling mistakes and a porous defence.
Prior to the match the omens could not have been better for the home side.
With a host of Irish Lions on display, and at home in the RDS, a venue they had not lost in for a couple of seasons they only had to get it half right to win, maybe that was their problem.
Psychologically this will be damaging?
In regular competition you get another chance to put things right the following week, but Leinster’s season, despite making two semi-finals, will have a bitter taste to it now, it will be a summer of ‘what ifs’ for the players and coaches.
Leinster still had enough ball to win this match, but it was an error-ridden display and they simply lacked any periods of continuity.
Every time they looked to create something positive, somebody spilled the ball or knocked it on.
Scarlets openside flanker James Davies was a constant thorn in the Leinster side at the breakdown where the Welsh side dominated.
The Scarlets line-speed and defence around the rucks and mauls was impressive, led by an ex-Leinster second-row they should get back Tadgh Bernie. Leinster should have had the perfect start when Ica Nacewa looked set to race away for the opening try but he was called back for a Johnny Sexton forward pass, it was a sign of things to come.
Minutes later it was the Scarlets that pounced first. But at 7-0 down Leinster saw no need for panic, they were playing with most of the possession and territory and it only seemed a matter of time before they would break the Scarlets down.
Leinster scrumhalf Luke McGrath went agonisingly close, injuring himself in the process, but time after time Leinster simply spilled the ball.
But despite this they eventually took the lead after a well worked try involving Sexton, No 8 Jack Conan and the rampaging centre Garry Ringrose.
The next Scarlets try was a source of embarrassment for Leinster, and came the way of a partial charge down. Scarlets flanker Aaron Shinglers’ palm off on replacement scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park was akin to a fly swatting exercise as the big No 6 cruised in under the sticks for another soft Scarlets try.
Leinster had not consolidated at all. Worse was to follow when minutes later the visitors again stunned Leinster, it was Clermont all over again. But this was not France, it was home turf, the RDS, and with Scarlets now down to 14 men Leinster were still very much in this match and still well able to dig themselves out of the mess they were in.
But the second half was a mirror of the first, too many basic errors and a lack of continuity.
On 60 minutes Leinster still got a serious lifeline with a Conan try, but with Isa Nacewa’s simple conversion hitting the post from close range, Leinster suddenly had to go chasing a try, and as a result they became more frustrated and ragged.
Leinster panicked as the clock ticked on and the game became loose and that just played into the visitors hands.
The Scarlets simply looked the side with more hunger and self-belief and played more as a unit rather than as a team of individuals.
It will be another off season with an empty trophy cabinet in Donnybrook and plenty of soul-searching to be done.