DONAL LENIHAN: Anyone up to the challenge of lassooing Leinster?

In a PRO14 final of real quality, illuminated by nine smashing tries, Leinster turned on the class in their final appearance of the season to achieve what even their stellar side that dominated Europe between 2009 and 2012 found beyond them — a European and domestic double.

Despite the extreme physical demands being asked of them in recent months, the youthful core of talent in the Leinster squad would surely be happy for this magical season to go on and on. A large proportion of those players — 17 are in the Ireland squad heading to Australia next week — have now achieved a lifetime of sporting milestones while still dipping their toes in the professional waters.

Six Nations glory, a Grand Slam, Champions Cup and now a PRO14 title with the potential for a rare series win down under to come. That can wait for now as Saturday was all about capturing the double.

This time two years ago, Leinster were devastated after coming a poor second in the Guinness Pro 12 final to an excellent Connacht side. They responded impressively from that setback before running out of steam at the penultimate stage of both European and domestic competition last season.

Perhaps as a consequence of those setbacks, this season was all about recognising and taking opportunities. There was a noticeable difference in mindset and application right from the outset of both campaigns. This Leinster squad sensed from early September that they were capable of delivering great things and that’s exactly what they have achieved.

For the Scarlets players, the only thing that mattered Saturday was the opportunity to prove they are a better side than they were made to look on their last visit to Dublin. My abiding memory of that Champions Cup semi-final was the expression on the faces of the Scarlets players as they left the field at half-time, down 24-9.

This time out Scarlets were adamant there wouldn’t be a repeat and, despite being put under intense pressure from the outset, were content to give away penalties rather than concede tries which enabled them negotiate the opening quarter without shipping too much water.

Their defensive line speed caused Leinster problems early on but, as has been their hallmark all season, Leinster simply readjusted and found a way. Their kicking game, with Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton executing with pinpoint accuracy, coupled with the pressure chase had the visitors back three in the horrors. Once they secured a foothold in that Scarlets 22, the precision and accuracy of their breakdown work delivered ball on a plate for McGrath.

On four separate occasions in the second quarter they took Scarlets beyond fifteen phases. Sexton took the ball so flat, with big ball carriers running off either shoulder, it was inevitable that tries would result. The thing that makes Leinster so difficult to contain is that all eight forwards are explosive ball carriers. When they manage to recycle the ball in under five seconds they become impossible to stop.

As with Ireland, Leinster have this incredible ability to consistently deliver a hammer blow on the stroke of half-time. Once again, they duly obliged with a gem of a try from their outstanding New Zealand winger James Lowe, three minutes into injury time, off slick hands from Sexton after their forwards did all the hard work from a five-metre lineout maul.

carlets competed far better in the opening half than in the Champions Cup semi-final yet still found themselves 10 points in arrears at the break.

Losing influential back rower Aaron Shingler to an ankle injury just before the break was the last thing they needed as their resources were already stretched having lost Scotland captain John Barclay in the semi-final win over Glasgow Warriors.

Forced to shift Tadhg Berne from the second row to cover that gap, they ended up with two open sides in James Davies and Will Boyde along with a converted lock in Byrne in a revamped back row tasked with coping with a rampant Leinster trio for whom Jack Conan was outstanding.

With Leinster utterly dominant up front, the stage was set for Sexton to deliver and he didn’t disappoint. He was masterful. Despite absorbing his usual quota of high and late hits, he attacked the gain line fearlessly, inviting would-be assassins, which created gaps elsewhere for his razor-sharp passing to exploit.

Not even the loss of their inspirational captain Isa Nacewa after only 19 minutes in his last appearance for his adopted province could derail the Leinster juggernaut — remember he was deputiSing at inside centre for the injured Robbie Henshaw — as Rory O’Loughlin slotted in seamlessly off the bench.

That has been the way for Leinster all season as, incredibly, 55 different players racked up game time in this tournament. Having sucked the life out of the Scarlets with a potent mix of power, pace, and precision, the fleet-footed Jordan Larmour then struck with a spark of individual brilliance with a magical one-handed pick up, at full throttle off his kick ahead, without breaking stride.

Scarlets are a fine side, a fact underlined by their refusal to throw in the towel when closing out this highly entertaining contest with two superb tries of their own over the last three minutes of a highly entertaining decider.

Without question, they were the second best team in the PRO14 this season, yet the gap between them and their successors as champions was there for all to see.

At a time when some expected to see Leinster out on their feet after the exertions of a momentous season, they produced sublime passages of rugby, encapsulated perfectly by that audacious effort from Larmour, followed soon after by another cracking try by Conan after brilliant footwork from Joey Carbery left Hadleigh Parkes tacking shadows.

The frightening thing for everyone else is that the age profile of Leinster’s squad suggests they are capable of getting even better.

The bar has been raised. It’s up to everyone else to rise to the challenge.


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