Le­in­ster take fi­nal step with ruth­less ef­fi­ciency

Cullen’s side learn from last sea­son’s hu­mil­i­a­tion in Pro12 fi­nal to Scar­lets

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby - John O’Sul­li­van at the Aviva Sta­dium JOHN O’SUL­LI­VAN at the Aviva sta­dium

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.

Im­prove­ments

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.

Snappy de­liv­ery

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.

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