Wednesday 22 January 2020

Neil Francis: I was guilty of of putting extravagant labels on this Scarlets side, Leinster were unstoppable

21 April 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Leinster celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's fifth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster Rugby and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
21 April 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Leinster celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's fifth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster Rugby and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Were we guilty of putting extravagant labels on this Llanelli side? Certainly this columnist was. They are still a very decent side and will have a big say in where the PRO14 championship goes, but at this level they were ruthlessly exploited.

Llanelli are a very snappy footballing side that play with verve and their skills, even under pressure, are rarely found wanting. Yesterday they ran into the machine - a big blue wood-chipper - and they were pulverised. The power and determination of Leinster yesterday told you that this was their best performance at the business end since they dispatched Ulster in the final six years ago. They were unstoppable yesterday.

One of the pleasing things in the nature of their performance was the fact that they were relentless, but more importantly they were remorseless. What I mean by that is that they did not stop playing until the 79th minute when they ceded a cheap try to the indefatigable Tadhg Beirne who was probably more than a little embarrassed when he dotted down underneath the Leinster posts.

It was the mindset that impressed the most. Leinster were primed to play the ruthless type of lung-busting game where very few teams can live with them.

Llanelli are a proud and determined side and they are well organised defensively, but it became very obvious after only five minutes that they had absolutely no way of preventing Leinster from getting over the gain line. Once you are unable to prevent that, Leinster, in the mood that they were in, were always going to prevail.

It was noteworthy that Llanelli did not miss many tackles. They had a 96 per cent completion rate which is extraordinary against a side like Leinster in this kind of form. They did not miss their tackles - they simply ran out of tacklers or had tacklers parked in the wrong areas of the pitch.

This was a very strange type of game at the breakdown and at the ruck. Normally in the Pro14 there is meaty competition at the breakdown but in this contest - if you can call it that - nobody got in to the ruck.

It was one of those games where if the mood took the players they could have adopted Conor O'Shea's tactics in the Italy versus England game last season where you could just run to the base of the ruck and pick it up because it wasn't really a ruck as there were no opposition players in it.

Llanelli could not cope in contact because during Leinster's periods of ascendency, when they got runners trucking forward, they normally had out-riders with them.

If Leinster worked the ball with one out-runner, the speed in to protect that ball or clear it out was bewildering. Johnny Barclay and James Davis and even the redoubtable Beirne - master poachers that they are - got blown out of it with cold-blooded efficiency. That was the game and once Llanelli could not compete here it was all over. It will be the same for either Racing or Munster.

Leinster's ability and intent at the breakdown is masterful.

A 38-16 scoreline does not really reflect the trends of the game and Leinster, despite their dominance, were guilty of a little bit of carelessness and indiscipline close to the line - they butchered four clear-cut chances.

Rob Kearney should have passed inside to Garry Ringrose when he was going down the left-hand side. Tadhg Furlong was unlucky in turning over the ball twice a metre from the line, and Scott Fardy really should have scored when he was held up over the line by Scott Williams. There were one or two more chances but in the scheme of things they were inconsequential.

Some of the worries we had about Leinster weren't really exploited. Jamison Gibson-Park had such an armchair ride that we noticed he kicked the ball away needlessly sometimes - but in general his passing was excellent, his promptings for his forward pack were pretty direct, and his runners coming from a variety of angles caused all sorts of headaches.

Llanelli tried to tempt Leinster into playing a wide game. Leinster picked and chose their moments pretty well but all their tries came from approaching on the inside and their power runners had a field day here.

James Ryan, in particular, for such a tall player, just seems to get across the gain line and has impressive leg strength to continue after contact.

I am struggling to describe what sort of power from the lungs you needed from being half tackled by Beirne. The Scarlets had to squeeze in tighter defensively to guard the ruck and once they did that Leinster always sensed it was the right thing to do to change the angle of attack.

I thought the moment of the match was Ringrose's 20-metre cut-out pass off his left hand at full pace. The Leinster centre is quickly becoming one of the best passers in the world.

Fergus McFadden did not have to stop or check as the ball went straight into the bread basket and the cover was beaten - it summed up Leinster's quality in one instance.

Leinster looked remarkably sharp and they had an energy about them which was irresistible - maybe rest and relaxation was the way forward coming in to April and May.

They looked as sharp as their new haircuts. It will take some performance from whoever wins today's second semi-final to beat them.

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