Ruthless Leinster double up in imperious fashion
Leinster 40 Scarlets 32
The best team in Europe made history in front of a record crowd of 46,092 yesterday. Picking up a Pro14 title alongside a Champions Cup was a new combination for them. For the 16 of them in the matchday squad who were a part of Ireland's Grand Slam it was even better. A stunning achievement in a stunning season.
"To be fair to Leinster they're a champion team," Scarlets captain Ken Owens said afterwards. Owens had seen his side put some manners on the scoreboard with two late tries from the brilliant Johnny McNicholl. But with just under half an hour left they knew they were done for when Sean Cronin's score in the corner, plus the conversion from man of the match Johnny Sexton, had put Leinster 28-11 ahead.
That game-settling score was down to Sexton. He had been hit high by Scott Williams, complained loud and hard, which helped get it referred upstairs, and from the penalty he put his team on Scarlets' five-metre line. From there Cronin exploded off the back of the line-out maul to score. Game over.
The only low point on Leinster's night was losing captain Isa Nacewa after just 19 minutes. His contribution to the cause over two incarnations has been immense. He had done well to get to the start line at all last night given his calf troubles of recent weeks. Then he put himself about like he was 100 per cent fit, only to hobble off to a standing ovation inside the first quarter.
"A lot of us haven't trained since the (Champions Cup) final and we had to turn up and perform for him," Sexton said of Nacewa. "That's a lot of pressure. We used 55 players to get us into this final and we were representing them. For a lot of the international guys, we probably only played five/six games all season but we still had to go out and win it for the whole squad."
They did that in style. It was the fourth time these teams have met this season between Europe and the Pro14 - three Leinster wins and a draw reflects their dominance. It didn't have the near perfect performance of the Champions Cup semi-final at this venue but it was emphatic all the same.
Sexton as you would expect was at the heart of it, but his man of the match award must have been a close run thing, with Devin Toner outstanding, and Cian Healy too. Rob Kearney had some special moments as well, and unlike his opposite number Leigh Halfpenny, was imperious in the air.
Leinster went after Halfpenny early in the contest and it worked well. In a game that was tit for tat off the tee in the first quarter, between Sexton and Halfpenny, the traction Leinster got from their kicking game was a big factor.
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The opening try, when it came on the half-hour, was a perfect illustration of Leinster at their best. And as an exercise in control it was first class. Equally it was an example of how mistakes at this level can be punished to great effect. One minute Scarlets were 30 metres from the Leinster line and with plenty of options; then they spill it, Jack Conan makes a great burst off the back of the scrum, and suddenly the reds are bailing water.
It got going properly when Sexton ran back a clearing kick from Halfpenny. Twenty-one phases later - phases that never strayed far from the ruck, but had lots of variety - and Toner squeezed over. Sexton missed the conversion but Leinster had made an important point: this was a trick they could pull off again.
That put them 14-6 ahead and it was a lead they would never come close to losing. Another key moment arrived just before the break. McNicholl was penalised deep in his 22 for offside and Sexton went for the jugular. With the forwards putting Scarlets into reverse, Luke McGrath and Sexton combined to put James Lowe over in the corner.
With 74 per cent territory and 73 per cent possession a 21-11 half-time lead was the least Leinster needed. Then they started the second half with more of the same, sticking Scarlets close to their line and putting them under huge pressure. Even though the Welsh escaped when James Ryan lost control of the ball a metre out, they were immediately in trouble when Sexton kicked another penalty to the corner, which allowed Cronin do his thing.
Jordan Larmour produced a fabulous try that he saved from a loose Scarlets kick - the pick-up to score was outstanding - and Joey Carbery pulled off a perfect outside break to set up Jack Conan's try soon after the hour mark. That had been the ideal response to McNicholl's first try, and the wing added two more in a great personal finish for him. For his team, however, it was mostly an exercise in pain management. They will be sore in lots of ways this morning.
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