There was an energy and a purpose to Leinster’s performance on Saturday that you don’t normally see from a team who are at the tail end of a season where they dispatched the best sides in Europe. The eight points between the sides on the scoreboard at the final whistle doesn’t fully reflect how ruthless and dominant Leinster were on the day, and the combination of pace, power, skill and intelligence that they displayed was actually quite frightening.
The Aerial Route
Leinster took up where they left off in their last meeting with the Scarlets by pinning the Welsh side deep in their own half for the earlier stages of this game. It challenged them to run the ball from deep, but more often than not, they chose to clear their lines, thereby handing Leinster lineout platforms from which to launch their attack. Johnny Sexton put up some outstanding steeplers, giving his chasers plenty of time to get into a position to compete, as well as landing the ball awkwardly for the visitors.
With Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa and James Lowe in their ranks, it was worthwhile for Leinster to try this tactic again, but you would have expected the Scarlets to have coped with it better than they did last month. They had enough time to analyse how Leinster went about targeting them under the high ball in the Champions Cup, and while Steff Evans and Johnny McNicholl aren’t known for being strong in the air, this could have been compensated for by putting extra numbers in the backfield.
Then again, that would have given Leinster more space to attack at the edge of the defence, which is the last thing you want to do against them. That kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario highlights how difficult Leinster are to contend with. The have threats across the park, so if you focus on negating them in one area, they’ll hurt you somewhere else.
When Leinster hit top gear, they are impossible to defend, and the speed and intensity of their attack in places on Saturday made keeping up with them unfeasible. The aggression of their forwards in contact and the efficiency of their clearing out got them on the front foot and gave them lightning quick ruck ball, and they constantly changed the point of attack against a Scarlets defence that couldn’t realign swiftly enough to allow their players to even consider predicting what was coming at them next.
Having to put in tackle after tackle without having the chance to catch their breath between rucks must have been torture on the lungs of the Scarlets players, and Leinster mercilessly exploited any gaps that were left behind by a defender not getting back in the line in time. Trying to anticipate what the opposition are going to do becomes tougher the more tired you are, and to make good reads against a team who are going at a hundred miles an hour is a nightmare.
The Hard Edge
Although they ended up conceding a couple of tries, Leinster nullified the Scarlets’ attack for large parts of the first half by blitzing in midfield. It cut off Rhys Patchell’s options, and left him with the choice of passing the ball to a receiver who would be smashed as soon as they caught it (leading to a loss of ground and momentum), throwing a potential intercept or kicking possession away.
The Scarlets normally back themselves to get the ball past the last defender in these situations, but Leinster’s defence was so well-organised, that when they repeatedly shut the Scarlets down, Patchell was left with no alternative but to hoof the ball downfield. The Scarlets’ game plan is built on retaining possession and putting the ball through the hands, so to force them into kicking is a victory in and of itself.
The intricate nature of the Scarlets’ attacking structure asks a lot of questions of defences, and they normally keep their opponents second-guessing long enough to buy themselves time on the ball. Shooting up in midfield like Leinster did on Saturday is often viewed as a risk, but they never looked like they were going to be caught out by doing so. There was a patience to the way in which they repeatedly denied the Scarlets any space, and there haven’t been many teams this season who have been that comfortable defending against them.
Belligerence & Bludgeon
In truth, this game ended as a contest when James Lowe went over in the corner on the stroke of half-time. Scoring a try in the championship minutes was a huge boost for the home team, but it didn’t come easily. Leinster were single-minded in their approach to crossing the whitewash before the half ended, turning down shots at goal, and the determination was visible in Johnny Sexton’s face when he opted to go down the line.
There was a sense of inevitability to the maul that followed, and even though it was Lowe who got the score for Leinster, it was the work of the forwards that created it. The inexorable forward thrust from the Leinster drive epitomised their mindset on Saturday. They weren’t content to let the Scarlets to stay in the game, and the plan appeared to be to crush them at the first opportunity.
You could attribute it to the media writing them off because of the rarity of doubles these days, or maybe learning from their semi-final defeat in the RDS a year ago, but it seemed to be the case that Leinster refused to lose this game. That thirst for success might not last forever, but for the moment, it’s of great importance to a club that have all the tools to push on and win more silverware down the road.
Courage Under Fire
There is a simple reason why silence descends on the Aviva Stadium whenever Johnny Sexton goes down injured; there isn’t another out-half in the country who can do the things he does as consistently as he does them. On top of a performance of sublime passing, first-rate tactical kicking and sharp running, he showed his true character in the build-up to Sean Cronin’s try. After almost being decapitated by Scott Williams, he got his forwards as close to the Scarlets try line with a beauty of a touch-finder, and then slotted a touch line conversion from the try that was scored off the back of the ensuing maul.
That type of mental strength is rare, and this particular example of it demonstrates just how indispensible he is for his province and country. Going by his performances over the course of this season, what we’re seeing is a world-class player at the peak of his powers, and if Ireland are going to win a series in Australia this summer, or reach a World Cup semi-final next year, he will have to be fit.