Tomorrow will be the Scarlets’ second appearance in the last four of Europe, and there’s no question that they have gotten there on merit. The Welsh region progressed from the pool stages by playing with skill and invention, and while they don’t have the same rich history in this competition as Leinster, the Aviva Stadium holds no fear for them. This game is set to be a cracking contest, with end to end rugby and plenty of tries, but if Leinster are to come away with a win, they have a couple of tricky obstacles to overcome.
The Welsh Barbarians
Over the last two seasons, the Scarlets have become one of the most dangerous sides in Europe with ball in hand, deservedly winning the Pro12 11 months ago. They play a thrilling brand of coast to coast rugby under Wayne Pivac, and once they build up a head of steam, it’s almost impossible to stop them. Their attack always has multiple layers, with players running on to the ball at pace from deep, and it’s a style of play that suits a creative playmaker like Rhys Patchell down to the ground.
It’s a difficult picture to be presented with from a defensive point of view, and it usually causes defenders to sit back on their heels and let the move develop, in turn giving the Scarlets extra space and time to work with:
The Scarlets’ try-scoring exploits can’t be entirely attributed to their intricate attacking patterns; their continuity is exemplary, and this is largely due to the capacity of their forwards to pass like backs:
Keeping the ball alive like this prevents the defence from resetting, and with a tracking scrum-half like Gareth Davies, the Scarlets thrive when the game breaks up.
Leinster’s defence has improved immeasurably this season, with their greatest trait off the ball being the manner in which they can hold teams out for a high number of phases. Their line speed isn’t necessarily hyper aggressive, but they showed first-class concentration and patience against Saracens, limiting them to one maul try by consistently closing off any potential gaps that the English side’s ball carriers could exploit:
Effective as it has been up until now, this type of defending probably isn’t the best course of action for Leinster in their next fixture. If they let the Scarlets hold on to the ball for long periods, they won’t be able to keep shutting the door. It’s a little bit like playing New Zealand in the sense that you have to pressurise every pass, because once their phase play gets motoring, there is only going to be one outcome.
Rushing off the line in an attempt to force a knock-on or get an intercept has its own risks, but allowing a team like the Scarlets a monopoly on possession is ill-advised. Robbie Henshaw’s return to action is timely because his physicality is tailor-made for a blitz defence and Garry Ringrose has demonstrated in the past that he has the pace to get to the ball carrier and smash them while they are still in possession.
Sustaining that kind of effort for 80 minutes is a big ask, and Leinster have a habit of taking the foot off the gas in clutch games when focus is required. It’s unrealistic to expect them to deny the Scarlets a try, but the quality of Leinster’s defensive performance is going to determine the end result of this match. The loose kicking that we saw from Leinster in the final quarter against Saracens will have to be eradicated, too, because Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny don’t need a second invitation to counter-attack.
The Day Of The Jackal
Much like the Scarlets, Leinster’s game plan is aimed at scoring tries by putting the ball through the hands, and like any team who wants to play with width and pace, they rely on quick ruck ball to do so. This is where they could run into trouble this weekend, because in Tadhg Beirne and James Davies, the Scarlets have two of the standout breakdown forwards in the competition this season. Beirne’s ability to get low quickly and hold his own body weight is unusual for a player who is 6’6”, but he is better at winning turnovers on the ground than most loose forwards:
James Davies’ limited opportunities to play for his country are simply down to Wales having an embarrassment of riches at 7. Dan Leavy has had a remarkable breakout season for Ireland, but he has a tough challenge ahead of him tomorrow. Many believe that Davies has been the form Welsh openside this season, and when you see him doing things like this, it’s hard to understand why he is on the fringes of Warren Gatland’s squad:
This is going to be a problem for Leinster because they like to use their forwards wide from the ruck in attack, but if they don’t pile numbers into the breakdown tomorrow, they will struggle to hold on to the ball long enough to string a decent set of phases together. The other option they have is to pass out of contact regularly so as not to let the ball go to deck, which is easier said than done; the Scarlets are organised and hard-hitting in defence, so a different tactic might be needed.
A Tough Nut To Crack
Trying to detect vulnerabilities in this Scarlets side is not easy, but the one phase of play where La Rochelle did manage to squeeze penalties out of them three weeks ago was the maul. Although Leinster don’t have the same heavy artillery in the forwards as the French outfit, their maul was a formidable weapon against a Saracens pack who are well-drilled by Alex Sanderson:
After Ireland’s Grand Slam win in Twickenham, I noticed a comment on an online rugby article expressing the opinion that a lack of top-end power in the close-quarters exchanges would get in the way of Tadhg Beirne nailing down a starting place in Ireland’s engine room when he moves to Munster.
It’s a view that more than likely originated from Iain Henderson’s magnificent counter-mauling against England, as well as the fact that Beirne is known for winning turnovers at the breakdown and eye-catching bursts in the loose, as opposed to the nuts and bolts aspects of second row play like scrummaging or mauling, but to say that he’s a flashy player who’s not good at the basics of his position is a classic example of pigeonholing.
There are very few locks in the world who can sidestep Anthony Watson or win penalties on the deck as often as an openside flanker, but to say that he’s not great at the less glamorous tasks that are normally carried out by second rowers is both unfair and inaccurate. Against La Rochelle in the quarter-finals, Beirne was a strong counter-mauling presence in an area where his team had the blowtorch applied to them on the day:
The Scarlets may have ended up conceding yards in the above instance, but Beirne displayed impressive strength to fight through the middle of an enormous La Rochelle pack and slow them down. As soon as the French side got themselves a lineout in the Scarlets’ red zone, a try seemed to be an inevitability, but Beirne repeatedly forced himself into the heart of the maul to halt its momentum:
La Rochelle ended up turning the ball over on the back of this stellar maul defence, and it turned out to be a major turning point in the game. That resilience is a huge factor in what the Scarlets have achieved to date, and whether Leinster choose to maul tomorrow or not, they will not win easily.
It’s all well and good saying that Leinster are a young team who are continually making progress, but this weekend is going to be a litmus test of how far they have actually come. They weren’t miles away from beating Clermont last year (even though they started that game as badly as possible), but at some stage, those ‘learning curve’ experiences have to turn into victories.
Beating a team who 1) play a similar brand of rugby to themselves, 2) had their number in the semi-final of the Pro12 last season and 3) have hardly any apparent weaknesses would be a significant step forward. Losing to Benetton is not the ideal run-in to a European semi-final, but with all of their first-choice players restored to the starting XV, Leinster will be a different side tomorrow. However, only time will tell if they are ready to move into the next phase of their development.