Leinster take final step with ruthless efficiency
Cullen’s side learn from last season’s humiliation in Pro12 final to Scarlets
It’s rare in sport that the alchemy of the training ground is almost flawlessly replicated in a match environment, but there was a golden hue to Leinster’s utterly compelling victory at the Aviva stadium as they negotiated a passage to the Champions Cup final in Bilbao with ruthless efficiency.
There was an unswerving focus and primal intensity at the core of Leinster’s brutal pummelling of the Scarlets. The coaches devised, the players implemented and the supporters celebrated a gameplan that clinically dismantled a hitherto very good Scarlets team, the visitors eviscerated up front, to a point where only some gutsy last-ditch defence kept the scoreline on the less-embarrassing side of 50 points.
Leinster understood how the Scarlets felt at the final whistle because they had walked that mile, abject in defeat the previous season, when the Welsh club rocked up to the RDS and beat them convincingly in a Guinness Pro12 semi-final; they did so with 14 players for most of the game.
This wasn’t about revenge per se; it was a case for the Irish province of absorbing the lessons, repairing the fault-lines and identifying the incremental improvements required to change the outcome. This they accomplished spectacularly.
Leinster’s outhalf and captain on the day, Johnny Sexton, articulated the players’ mindset going into the game: “It was one of our best performances of the season; they are a quality team. It was important that we looked at last year’s performance against them and learned from it. It showed in our performance that we really did learn from that game. We will maybe look back at that game last year as a turning point for us as a group.
“Defeats hurt and it’s important for the young lads to learn and for the older lads. We hadn’t tasted semi-final defeats ever, some of us. We had to know what that felt like and we had to learn from it. I said to the lads we need to play well and if we do, we have a chance and luckily we did that.”
Sexton was at his imperious best, organising, chivvying and moving his team efficiently as if Lansdowne Road was his personal chess board. He racked up 18 points, the celebration of his try an opportunity to release the pent-up emotion of the impending victory, to complement a pitch-perfect kicking display.
There was still time for him to gently chide Jordan Larmour, a half-time replacement for the injured try-scorer Fergus McFadden, for one decision close to the Scarlets’ line. Sexton smiled: “He [Larmour] backed himself against 10 Scarlets on the short side when there was a six-man overlap on the other! I said to him, ‘Did you call for the ball?’ He said [excitedly], ‘Yeah, yeah.’ But that’s the beauty of those young lads. They back themselves.”
The Leinster outhalf would be the first to acknowledge that the garlands of victory primarily belong to the pack: to the tyros James Ryan, Dan Leavy and Tadgh Furlong, to their mentors, Devin Toner,
‘‘ I said to the lads before the game we need to play well, that’s all we need to worry about and if we do, we have a chance
Scott Fardy and Cian Healy, and to the facilitators, Seán Cronin and Jordi Murphy, whose selfless graft on behalf of the team provided the glue to their utter dominance, in the set-piece, the breakdown and at pretty much every collision point.
Jamison Gibson-Park’s snappy service and decision-making passed on the benefits the pack had accrued. Robbie Henshaw’s display was little short of astonishing given his injury sabbatical, and, when the Scarlets did sporadically threaten, in tandem with his midfield partner Garry Ringrose, he chaperoned them out of harm’s way. Everyone contributed in a positive vein all the way back to Rob Kearney.
It should be noted too this was a victory for coach Leo Cullen and his cohorts in the backroom team who weighed the Scarlets and identified where they would be found wanting. Ryan’s try got Leinster up and running on the scoreboard, the genesis a slick lineout move, a strike play from the backs, eventually finished off by the secondrow’s second surge.
Healy’s power and pirouette got him over the line, while McFadden’s first-half injury-time finish sent Leinster to the dressingroom in chipper form and 24-9 ahead. Fardy powered through the remnants of the thin red line following a gorgeous offload from Ryan, and Sexton was next to spot a chink of daylight in the rearguard – a speck on the horizon by the time Tadgh Beirne scored a late try.