By Brendan O’Brien
Leinster have done their bit to bring about the dream all-Ireland Champions Cup final in Bilbao next month with a simply stunning five-try destruction of the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Unbeaten in the tournament approaching this last four tie, they have now added the reigning PRO14 champions to a list of scalps that includes the current Top 14 and Aviva Premiership leaders, the top side in the opposing PRO14 conference and the reigning European champions.
This latest performance was the best of the lot.
It was, truth be told, up there with anything the club produced in winning three Heineken Cups inside four years between 2009 and 2012 and it stands as a daunting demonstration of their powers before tomorrow’s second semi-final, between Munster and Racing 92, in Bordeaux.
Most remarkable of all, maybe, was the fact that Leinster could, and maybe should have, added further to the scoreboard against a Scarlets side that departed the Irish capital battered and bewildered and having failed to fire a single shot.
No-one expected this.
The Irish province had carried the favourite’s tag into the afternoon but they were facing a Scarlets side bringing their own momentum and bulging stocks of self-belief and one targeting the region’s first ever visit to the deciding stage.
Jonathan Sexton spoke on Friday about how Leinster had been somewhat taken by surprise by the Scarlets in the Guinness PRO12 semi-final meeting at the RDS 12 months ago when the Welsh region won at ease despite having played most of the game with 14 men.
A loss that has eaten away at the province ever since, it fed into an awesome opening 40 minutes here that ended with them 24-9 – and three tries to none – to the good on a day of azure skies and one that was just perfect for some running rugby.
Leinster varied their game brilliantly in that period. They mostly penetrated hard and direct around the fringes of the ruck but they also spread it wide at times and Sexton chucked in a brilliant Garryowen at one point that earned them a five-metre scrum.
Robbie Henshaw, playing his first game since busting a shoulder against Italy in the Six Nations, was jaw-droppingly powerful and effective and he roared encouragement and slapped backs with all the frustration of a man done with watching from the sideline.
Jamison Gibson-Park, starting at nine thanks to Luke McGrath’s own injury concerns of late, was helped no end by a bruising effort from a pack, spearheaded by Australian man of the match Scott Fardy, that completely negated the sniping tendencies of Tadhg Beirne and his cohorts.
The whole Leinster pack were on their game. It was brutal at times in the physical sense and, bar a few incidences, astonishingly accurate with it and the reigning PRO14 champions were powerless to stand up to the incessant waves.
James Ryan bulldozed over for the first five-pointer after ten minutes, finishing off a superb first-phase move from a lineout just outside the Scarlets 22, even if there were suspicions that he had been guilty of a double movement after the tackle.
The TMO, crucially, didn’t think so.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 21, 2018
Leigh Halfpenny had opened the scoring with a sixth-minute penalty but the momentum was overloading in the opposite direction and Sexton added a penalty midway through the half to extend the province’s advantage to seven.
They probably should have been further ahead sooner. Twice they sniffed about under the Scarlets posts in this period but another Halfpenny kick narrowed the gap to four points before Cian Healy touched down for the second try.
Power and precision were in perfect harmony yet again as Leo Cullen’s side launched off a scrum in the opposing 22 before breaking the whitewash in just the third phase. Yet again, Halfpenny kept the visitors in touch with a three-pointer.
A 17-9 scoreline was poor return for the dominance enjoyed by the three-time European champions so a strike on the cusp of the interval had a sense of just reward to it, Fergus McFadden released for a clear run into the corner after Scarlets had soaked up a tonne of pressure close in.
McFadden paid for his points thanks to a defender’s trailing knee that left him with a dead leg. Jordan Larmour replaced him for the second-half but there was no change in the narrative as Leinster began battering the Scarlets line again from the restart.
Twice inside the next five minutes they came within inches of the chalk after periods of intense pressure only to be held up and they finally crossed it for a fourth time with half an hour to go thanks to a more rapid approach.
Sexton made a half-break through the midfield to herald the panic in the red ranks and then James Ryan and Dan Leavy served as links in the chain before Scott Fardy joined on the shoulder and carried the last few yards.
Sexton landed his fifth kick from five attempts and the gap was out to 22 and he added his side’s fifth try on the hour mark, punching the air in giddy delight as he did so and then landing the conversion before making way for Joey Carbery.
Beirne, Munster-bound come the summer, did manage to claim a small personal memento from the defeat to his home province and former club with the Scarlets’ first try a minute from time. Leinster will hardly begrudge him that.
They have more important matters to concern them now.
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan, S Fardy, D Leavy, J Murphy.
Replacements: J Larmour for McFadden (HT); J McGrath for Healy (54); J Tracy for Cronin (58); A Porter for Furlong (61); J Carbery for Sexton (62); J Conan for Leavy (67); N McCarthy for Gibson-Park and R Molony for Ryan (both 71);
Scarlets: R Patchell; L Halfpenny, S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens, S Lee; T Beirne, D Bulbring; A Shingler, J Davies, J Barclay.
Replacements: R Elias for Owens and W Kruger For Lee (both 53); L Rawlins for Bulbring (55); S Cummins for Shingler (67); A Davies for G Davies and W Boyde for Barclay (both 71); D Evans for Evans and S Hughes for Williams (both 75).
Referee: R Poite (France).