When Scott Fardy scored Leinster’s fourth try on Saturday, the atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium instantly disappeared. The passionate and vocal Llanelli supporters that had made the trip became visibly dispirited. In a way, it was disappointing that a match that was billed as a European knockout stage classic ended up being so one-sided, and although a big semi-final win doesn’t guarantee that Leinster will go on to win this tournament, it’s hard to imagine Racing 92 being able to withstand them if they catch fire in the final, such was their superiority over the Scarlets.
It’s quite strange that a game that was expected to be a helter skelter affair ended up being won up front. Leinster were incisive and skillful on the day, but they crossed the gain line with every forward carry, and the Scarlets had no answer for their power. Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Scott Fardy and James Ryan in particular were the standout performers in the close-quarters exchanges, at times blowing through Scarlets tacklers at will:
The carry from Ryan above (where he steamrolls Tadhg Beirne on his way over the try line) was a microcosm of the difference in physicality between the packs on the day. The match-up between the two locks was expected to be close, but Ryan outmuscled his former Landsdowne teammate all afternoon.
On top of being dominant up front, Leinster had a force of nature in their back line in the shape of the powerhouse Robbie Henshaw. A lot of players in their first game back from a serious injury are reluctant to really put that part of their body to the test, but the Athlone native was willing and able:
When you consider that he was lining up opposite Hadleigh Parkes, a centre who is known for being a sturdy, hard-man 12, Henshaw’s physicality was all the more impressive. Isa Nacewa has been superb in his absence, but the Ireland midfielder’s ability to generate front foot ball is going to be vital in Bilbao.
Despite winning the majority of the collisions, it was the angle of the running lines of the Leinster forwards that did the most damage, physically and mentally. In the earlier parts of the game, the Leinster pack ran inwards towards the ruck as they carried the ball, which in turn, forced the Scarlets tacklers to move a yard or two back infield and attempt a hit with their weak shoulder:
Having to put in that extra bit of effort to readjust when you have already set your shoulder low for the hit makes a tackle more taxing, and after a certain point, the Scarlets defenders started to turn inwards as soon as they got in position.
This ended up creating space for Leinster in the wider channels later on, because the Scarlets pack clustered around the ruck instead of drifting out towards the touch line. The expectation was that Leinster were going to continue targeting the inseam of their defence, and after making numerous tackles on their inside, their shoulders were directed towards the ruck to begin with out of habit.
The best example of this was the phase that preceded Fergus McFadden’s try when James Davies and Aaron Shingler had practically turned sideways to face the ruck before the ball was picked up from the base:
Leinster’s brilliance up front wasn’t all brute force. They had the precision of a surgeon at the breakdown, denying the Scarlets jackalling opportunities time and time again by always putting the requisite numbers in and clearing out with ferocious efficiency:
When going up against a team who are threatening on the floor, the tendency is to pile players into the ruck aimlessly in the misguided belief that it will automatically secure the ball, but Leinster seemed to know exactly the right amount to commit at each breakdown so that they could keep as many players in their attacking line as possible. It only worked because of how good the rucking technique of their squad was from 1 to 23, and the Scarlets exerted little or no influence in this area.
Tadhg Beirne has been peerless at the breakdown in Europe this season, but Leinster limited him to a solitary turnover on the ground, and James Davies (another gifted poacher) was anonymous in this department to the extent that you wondered if he was carrying an injury.
The Ghosts Of West Wales
As spectacular as Leinster were, it must be noted that the Scarlets didn’t play anywhere close to their potential, and were made to look toothless with ball in hand, even when they had long spells of possession. As mentioned before the game, Leinster aren’t overly aggressive in defence, and Saturday was no different. They were happy to let the Scarlets hold on to the ball and play, but unlike last year they were completely comfortable containing them.
Whether it be errant passes from the normally dexterous Rhys Patchell, Hadleigh Parkes getting scragged for a loss of several metres, or Steff Evans struggling to find a gap in the defensive line, the Scarlets were worryingly out of sorts at the weekend:
It has often been the case that when a team gets to a stage of a competition that is uncharted territory for them, they can flounder. This happens for plenty of reasons (the magnitude of the occasion gets to them, they face a level of intensity or defensive pressure that they are not used to, the opposition figure out a weakness of theirs that was never noticed before, etc.), and while there is no way of knowing for definite what the specific cause of the Scarlets’ underperformance was, it’s fair to say that they are capable of doing much better.
What they produced at the weekend was a pale imitation of their heroics this season, and with a young, talented squad, and the guiding hand of Wayne Pivac, we haven’t seen the last of them. Bad losses like the one they suffered on Saturday are character-building, and if they win the Champions Cup in a few years, they may reflect on it as an important building block in their success.
Scaling The Peak
It would be a stretch to suggest that this Leinster side is better than the 2009-2012 Heineken Cup-winning vintage because that team had the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Brad Thorn, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, but there’s no question that a fourth European title is a real possibility. Even though Racing 92 annihilated Munster in the first 30 minutes of their clash in Bordeaux on Sunday, Leinster have shown that they can blitz quality opponents, too.
They have a blend of youth (e.g. James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour) and experience (e.g. Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Rob Kearney) that any team would kill for, and their recent overseas signings (Scott Fardy, James Lowe) have been of the highest calibre. The sense of doom and gloom that overtook the province when Joe Schmidt departed and Leinster’s squad underwent a sudden depletion in resources is now a distant memory, and a period of European dominance might be on the cards again.