Lowe and Fardy star in Leinster win but McGrath injury leaves Cullen with European selection headache
Leinster 20 Scarlets 13
This is the time of year when the quality of your overseas imports shines through and Scott Fardy and James Lowe paid back some of their salaries with leading roles in a Leinster win that puts them in control of Conference B of the PRO 14.
However, the victory came at a cost and could put Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster in the position of choosing between the Australia second-row and the Kiwi wing-in the coming weeks and, potentially, the biggest game of their season against Saracens in six weeks’ time.
That’s because Luke McGrath limped off early in the second-half with a suspected knee injury.
The Ireland scrum-half is a first-choice player when everyone is fit and if he is out for a spell, New Zealander Jamison Gibson-Park is next in line. Unfortunately for Leinster, they can only pick two of their three Antipodeans in any given match-day squad in the PRO14 or Europe and that presents a major issue.
It’s a fiendishly difficult call, but Fardy would likely get the nod given the relative depth in the back three. Leaving Lowe out in his current form would be criminal however.
The winger scored two tries and brimmed with energy from start to finish, contributing far more than just his scores and securing the man of the match award.
Fardy, meanwhile, was a constant menace at the breakdown – created one of Lowe’s tries with two important interventions and generally led the pack. It was at least equally impressive.
Level on points at the top of the conference coming into the first of two games between last year’s semi-finalists in three weeks, the win puts Leinster three points in front of the champions with six regular season games remaining.
If they can repeat the trick at Parc y Scarlets in a fortnight's time then they'll be on their way to topping the conference which would give them a weekend off for the first round of the play-offs and home advantage in the semi-finals.
Between them, these sides were missing 23 players who are on Six Nations duty as well as injured internationals but, despite fielding shadow XVs, the Conference B rivals served up a cracking game for the 14,916 in attendance at the RDS with both teams having a cut in perfect conditions.
As well as Lowe and Fardy, Munster-bound lock Tadhg Beirne was superb while young loosehead prop Ed Byrne was a stand-out for the hosts who trailed after 11 minutes.
Johnny McNicholl opened the scoring, but in circumstances similar to Robbie Henshaw a week ago down the road, he damaged his shoulder in touching down.
It was a fine try, delivered thanks to the visiting side’s capacity to maintain width through the phases with Beirne bursting up the left and Josh MacLeod making yards up the right before they sucked defenders in and released the Kiwi full-back to score.
He headed off as Dan Jones converted and Leinster’s difficult start was compounded by the loss of Rory O’Loughlin to a Head Injury Assessment after he collided with Steff Hughes.
That forced the home side into a re-shuffle with Ciaran Frawley thrown on for his debut in the midfield.
That didn’t seem to upset them unduly and the new man played a key role in the move that led to James Lowe’s try, running a strong line before releasing Ross Byrne out the back. Adam Byrne took over and spotted space left, his pass was touched by Ioan Nicholas but that didn’t check James Lowe’s run too much and he fought off the cover to score.
Ross Byrne’s conversion was just off target but the hosts had momentum and looked like making it count following an Ed Byrne burst and a Sean Cronin surge off Adam Byrne’s tap-down, only for Beirne to poach the ball and break out.
Suddenly it was the home side who were under pressure but a superb Max Deegan steal nipped the danger in the bud.
Instead, it was the Blues who took the lead through the effervescent Lowe who bullied his way over from close range but he owes Scott Fardy a pint for his role in the build-up; poaching Ryan Elias’s lineout throw before charging down Jonathan Evans’ clearing kick after the Scarlets had turned possession over.
Again, Byrne missed the conversion and the hosts led 10-7 at the break but they extended that lead within 32 seconds of the restart.
The try came from familiar beginnings as Jordan Larmour fielded a high kick and looked up. Instead of going himself, he fed Lowe who rode Corey Baldwin’s tackle and fed Luke McGrath on his inside and he raced home.
Frawley took over the kicking duties and nailed the conversion.
Jones punished a high Ross Byrne tackle to make it a seven point game, but Frawley cancelled that score out as the clock ticked down and the Scarlets were forced to finish with 14 men after Tom Prydie limped off with the bench already emptied.
Jones had a chance to edge his team back into bonus point range after the scrum had earned a penalty, but he missed a tough kick.
They might have narrowed the gap with a try had Paul Asquith not held on a second too long with Tom Williams screaming for the ball on his shoulder.
But they finally got their reward through their increasingly dominant scrum, which bull-dozed the home set-piece, allowing Jones a final shot and he made no mistake.
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 49); E Byrne (P Dooley 56), S Cronin (R Strauss 56), M Bent (O Heffernan 75); R Molony, S Fardy; Josh Murphy (I Nagle 65), Jordi Murphy (W Connors 75), M Deegan.
SCARLETS – J McNicholl (C Baldwin 12); T Prydie , P Asquith, S Hughes (capt) (T Williams 63), I Nicholas; D Jones, J Evans (D Smith 49); D Evans (P Price 58), R Elias (E Phillips 68), W Kruger (S Gardiner 67); S Cummins (L Rawlins 58), D Bulbring; T Beirne, J Davies, J MacLeod (W Boyde 67).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)