Monday, April 23, 2018

Leinster-38 Scarlets-16

On a massive day of knockout European rugby at the Aviva Stadium with a host of recent Grand Slam winners on show, Leigh Halfpenny kicked the visiting Welsh region to a 3-0 lead in the opening stages only for Leinster to completely dominate the rest of the contest which was all but over by halftime.

Long-time Harpin readers might recognise what I'm trying to do in that opening paragraph, namely making it look like I'm talking about the match that's the subject of the writeup when I'm actually comparing it to one from days gone this case the reference is to the 2012 Heineken Cup quarterfinal against the Cardiff Blues.

The similarities don't end there...what we saw on Saturday were levels of planning, execution and cohesion throughout the fifteen men in blue that easily matched those at the height of Joe Schmidt's trophy-filled reign.

In my previews I try to make a prediction based on Leinster playing at or maybe slightly below par while our opposition are at their best - for this match I couldn't wrap my head around the bookies' spread of 11pts in our favour, particularly because that's what they had us before that infamous semifinal that ended our last campaign.  I had it to be much, much closer.

And I'm sure nobody was surprised to see the reigning Pro12 champions take the lead after an early high tackle by Scott Fardy on Steff really looked as though the lead could change hands several times throughout the afternoon.

But Leinster have gone 3-0 down early quite a few times over the years, and I always say the same thing...'we can't make any decision on how this match is going to go because we haven't even had the ball yet'.  Once we did, it didn't take long for the true pattern of the match to emerge.

The road to the first try began with an incredible clearance kick by Rob Kearney's left boot that found touch after the bounce thanks to the nature of his strike.  Then after Gareth Davies, who arguably had the most disappointing afternoon for the visitors, had his box kick blocked down by Fardy, he had to try again which gave us a lineout in a brilliant attacking position.

Sorry for bringing up last Saturday's defeat to Benetton, but I only do so to demonstrate the gulf in class between the two different versions of Leinster, as if our European jersey is some kind of 'supersuit' designed by Tony 'Iron Man' Stark from the Marvel Comics universe.  Against the Italians, we kept having 'epic fails' at such lineouts.  On this day, our pack was on the way to a perfect 10 from 10 [well, almost perfect but even when John Barclay got close to one we still recovered it].

We were also 8 from 8 in the scrums, so what that setpiece success does of course is allow for pre-designed plays to be carried out and on this occasion the space was found for Fergus McFadden to get the ball all the way to the Scarlets line...what he needed was enough support to help him after he was tackled, and sure enough there was plenty of it with James Ryan lunging away from a Tadhg Beirne chop tackle to get it over.

Ferg, who had an eventful first half to say the least, was involved in our next score as well - after Healy knocked on as we pressed the Scarlets line soon after, as if trying to show their confidence was on a par with ours, they attempted a little grubber through in their own 22 only for McFadden to retrieve and a few phases later we won a penalty which Sexton gratefully converted.

It was a beautiful sunny day at the Aviva Stadium, and warm too in stark contrast to just three weeks earlier.  One other consequence was that the shadow of the West Stand split the pitch down the middle in the first half, meaning pretty much all restarts were sent towards the sunny side to take advantage, and unfortunately it was Ferg who was caught out after we went 10-3 up...the Scarlets' all-Welsh international front row won a pen at the scrum after his drop and hey presto the lead was back to four.

'This could be the moment the game turns' thought pretty much everyone...except for those in the blue supersuits, of course.

It was almost as though McFadden implored his captain Johnny Sexton to give him a high ball to chase and return the favour, because after a series of phases one was launched into their 22 where although it was taken by Davies, our determined right winger put him under so much pressure he carried it over the line giving us a 5m scrum.

This time it's the turn of our tight eight to get a good nudge on so when the set play doesn't quite work out, they clearly heard me shouting from the other end of the stadium to go for another scrum, and from here they had the cheek to try the same move again, with pick and go after pick and go leading to Healy rolling over the line and dotting down.

17-6 became 17-9 six minutes later with another Halfpenny penalty and it looked as though the Scarlets were going to stay close for a while yet...though our scrum half for the day had other ideas.

To hear opinions from several Leinster fans, the forced withdrawal of Luke McGrath from selection pretty much had us doomed to defeat.  I wasn't quite so down on the abilities of Jamison Gibson-Park, but I was convinced that his only real value to us was in situations like a final quarter when we were chasing a game.

One area I definitely thought he was below the required standard was in his box-kicking, and when we played on from a Scarlet knockon towards the end of the first half, he set himself to launch one and I dreaded the outcome.

Turns out I needn't have worried.  It had just the right amount of hang time and distance for chasers like Ringrose to cause havoc and win it back for Leinster; on the subsequent series of phases JGP proceeded to go back to the passing game he had been executing well all day.  The distribution was always quick, and given how long each pass option was, incredibly accurate.

If you get a chance to watch the match again I strongly suggest you make an effort to focus just on his contributions as we have the ball.  Phase after phase after phase he knows exactly what to do, even if that's getting over the ball himself and allowing a forward to pick and go instead. 

For me anyway, considering how so many of us felt about him before kickoff, the Kiwi's display would have gotten my man of the match award.  Fardy, the actual winner, and other candidates like Ryan and Henshaw were performing extremely well also but that was expected.

Anyway, back to this series...much like the Grand Slam team throughout the Six Nations, once we got on the front foot we were determined not to let the first half end without another try and sure enough we created another big space for McFadden to attack on his wing and he didn't let us down, although he never got the chance to celebrate courtesy of Steff Evans.

I'm going to give the Scarlet winger the benefit of the doubt to an extent...I don't think he meant to challenge Ferg that way.  My take is that when he realised he wasn't going to catch him, he thought the Welsh equivalent of 'ah, shite' and backed out of making an attempt at a tackle.  Still though...his momentum ended up taking him into the legs of the try scorer which ended his afternoon...I'd call that reckless and thus it should have seen a card.

But despite the fact that the halftime scoreline was an unbelievable 24-9, the very best of Leinster was yet to come.

It was the 64th minute before the Llanelli-based region had any kind of prolonged possession in our half, mostly thanks to the little tweaks we made to our game plan at half time.  Clearly our intention was to pin them back at every opportunity...first Rob Kearney tried a drop goal knowing we'd get it back if he missed, and then Sexton unleashed a relentless series of high kicks towards Rhys Patchell.  Even though the Scarlet full back took the first three well, he had the fourth stripped by Ferg's replacement Jordan Larmour.

Once we had the ball back, we were never taking 'no try' for an answer...the attitude across the fifteen was that clinical.  Strong carries from Sexton and Leavy got us deep in the 22 before a neat little 'one-two' with James Ryan got Fardy to the line and even with half an hour to go there was no coming back from 31-9.

We weren't even done yet.  Isa's fury with himself after a kick forward didn't take full advantage of the space up the touchline would have you thinking we were the ones chasing the game.  But by far the best reaction of the day was from his replacement as skipper - yet another thread-needle pass from Gibson-Park was perfectly taken by Sexton before a deft step opened up a huge gap for him to go under the posts and salute the adoring fans in the South Stand, myself included.

Just for once I'm not going to harp too much on our defence, but as the scoreline suggests it was as solid as always, with Henshaw [who I'm beginning to think could be a WestWorld-type robot after going so quickly from injury to 100% physicality] leading the way with 15 tackles though it was more about the overall intensity of the hits that constantly prevented the Scarlets from settling into their familiar patterns.

Stu Barnes in the Sky commentary box suggested that even if the Scarlets were on top of their game, Leinster would have won, which is high praise indeed.  To their credit they never gave up to the end although I very much doubt Tadhg Beirne's last-minute try offered the visiting fans much consolation, especially since their talisman won't even be at the region next season.

I have mentioned several individuals in describing this match but once more I can't go without a major shout out to all the coaching staff...naturally Messrs Cullen and Lancaster are at the forefront but don't forget John Fogarty whose pack has done so well and also Girvan Dempsey who once again crafted a perfect gameplan with Sexton that had everyone on board.

Also deserving of mention is the 'A' my phone battery was dying in the Aviva Stadium I checked in on their progress to see they were well behind...naturally I was pleasantly surprised to see they somehow managed to find three late tries to make the final themselves...what a weekend for Leinster rugby!

Unfortunately Munster were unable to get a similar result in Bordeaux the following day and the scoreline doesn't even come close to telling the story.  So now, having dispatched the league leaders from the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro 14 Conference A, followed by the reigning champions of Europe and then the Pro14, 'only' Racing 92 stands between Leinster and that fourth star.

We do have a bit of an advantage between now and then because while we have 1st place in Conference B all but secure, we can use the final match in Galway plus the off week that follows to rest key players ahead of Bilbao.   In the meantime, Racing have to play Bordeaux and Agen as they chase a home domestic semifinal spot of their own.

Naturally, as the old cliché goes, 'nothing has been won yet'.  But on the evidence of the eight matches to date in this Champions Cup, we can be absolutely certain that when kickoff time arrives in the San Mamés Stadium, the boys in the blue supersuits will be more than up for it.  JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019