Injury concerns and sloppy finish mar Leinster success
Leinster 20 Scarlets 13
For a good number of the 14,916 at a cold but sunny RDS yesterday afternoon the reference point was a warmer evening last May when Scarlets left Leinster standing in the semi-final of what was then the Guinness PRO12.
There had been an air of disbelief about the place back then as Scarlets ran Leinster off the park - and then repeated to dose for Munster in the final.
Wayne Pivac's side haven't lost much of their width or organisation in the meantime, and came to Dublin trailing leaders Leinster only on points difference.
This time around they went from looking like they had Leinster well mapped, to losing their way a bit themselves, and in the end came away with a losing bonus point, which in the circumstances was a good return.
Having run out of back replacements Scarlets finished with 14 men when Tom Prydie went off with seven minutes left. Dan Jones had a chance to put them within seven points, but was well wide from a long-range penalty, only to be reprieved with another shot on the buzzer. He nailed that one.
It was a sloppy finish from Leinster, with changes all over the shop and their scrum running backwards - a rarity in this part of the world.
"There were different combinations there and maybe we tried to attack (the scrum) at the end, which left us a little bit exposed," Leo Cullen said afterwards. "That's what it looked like to me."
It was that propensity to concede penalties that kept Scarlets in sight of the bonus. Of more concern to Leinster was the injury list, topped by Luke McGrath.
"I'm delighted that we won the game - that we got four points and they got one," Cullen added. "Luke got a bang on his knee. He was moving around afterwards with an ice pack on it. He'll have a scan before he goes back into [Irish camp]."
The toll started with Rory O'Loughlin being knocked out after 14 minutes, giving Ciarán Frawley a debut earlier than planned. It turned into a busy day for the Skerries man, for with Ross Byrne picking up a hip injury - he soldiered on until late in the day - he had to pick up the kicking duties off the tee, and penalties to touch. He did well, and when he kicked a penalty for a 20-10 lead on 70 minutes it looked like Scarlets would be leaving empty-handed. That's when the Leinster scrum found its reverse gear.
McGrath's departure was good news at least for Nick McCarthy, who made the most of virtually an entire half of rugby. Mostly, he was very accurate.
The other good points were the form of man of the match James Lowe, who did most things very well on top of his two tries, and Scott Fardy who had a full-on struggle with Tadhg Beirne. With the Test players away these games are a test of a club's overseas quality - and Leinster are not too shabby in that department. Closer to home Ed Byrne also made a huge contribution around the field with eight carries and seven tackles.
It was when Leinster started driving a few lineouts that they calmed down the Scarlets attack in the first half. They were 7-0 down inside 10 minutes to a fine try from Johnny McNicholl, but with some grunt the home side got back into it and with two tries from Lowe - both out wide, which contributed to Byrne missing the conversions - they were 10-7 ahead at the break.
McGrath scored a really good try, with a perfectly-timed support run, early in the second half to put Leinster 17-7 ahead, with Frawley's touchline conversion. Jones and Frawley swapped penalties before the Scarlet saved something for his side.
"At one stage we were chasing the bonus point and 5-0 [on match points] wouldn't have been very good," Scarlets coach Pivac said. "So from 14 men a 4-1 finish I suppose was a good result."
With the Kings in the RDS on Friday Leinster will be looking to make it five match points rather than four. As for Scarlets, they have Ulster next on their dance card. That will be interesting.
Scorers - Leinster: Lowe 2 tries, McGrath try; Frawley pen, con); Scarlets: McNicholl try; Jones 2 pens, con.
Leinster: J Larmour; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin (C Frawley 14), N Reid, J Lowe; R Byrne (B Daly 71), L McGrath (capt) (N McCarthy 44); E Byrne (P Dooley 57), S Cronin (R Strauss 57), M Bent (O Heffernan 75), R Molony, S Fardy, Josh Murphy (I Nagle 65), M Deegan, Jordi Murphy (W Connors 75)
Scarlets: J McNicholl (C Baldwin 10); T Prydie (73 no rep), P Asquith, S Hughes (capt) (T Williams 63), I Nicholas; D Jones, J Evans (D Smith 44); D Evans (P Price 58), R Elias (E Phillps 68), W Kruger (S Gardiner 68), S Cummins, D Bulbring, T Beirne, J Macleod, J Davies
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)
Sunday Indo Sport