If Leinster are to reach the Champions Cup final they will have to do so by overcoming one of European rugby’s most durable players.
When John Barclay joined Scarlets in 2013 he did so with his career at a crossroads. Dumped from the Scotland squad and deemed surplus to requirements at Glasgow, he went in search of a new challenge in the hope of reinvigorating his career.
Fast forward five years and Barclay is the last Scot standing in the Champions Cup as he looks to fire his adopted region into their first European final. But standing in Barclay’s way is a Leinster side who are widely regarded as the most complete side in European rugby.
With the 30-year-old heading home to join Edinburgh at the end of the current campaign it is very much a case of now or never for the Scotland veteran.
“It’s not so much about me leaving at the end of the season but to win something like that in any sort of form would be awesome,” said the Scotland captain. “I’ve loved my time down here and it’s great that in my last season, we are playing big matches. The build-up to this game is at a pretty similar level to a Six Nations game.
“It’s massive because the competition is spread out over a longer period so when you get to this stage it starts to speed up a bit. Part of the reason I came here was because I thought this was a big club. It’s got a lot of tradition and I always enjoyed the way the Scarlets played.
“Since Wayne Pivac, Steve Jones and Byron Hayward have been here the squad has been changing and I feel like it’s been an upwards trajectory. If somebody told me at the end of last year that we would qualify for the knockout stages of Europe, I wouldn’t have been surprised.”
Leo Cullen’s side are odds-on to beat the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. But Barclay has warned the three-time European champions they will be facing a side who can match them in most departments on the field.
A large amount of Leinster’s successes this season has emanated from their work at the breakdown, with the province notably winning all 161 rucks against Exeter Chiefs in the pool stages.
Much has been made of the breakdown prowess of openside flanker Dan Leavy, with his performances during Ireland’s Grand Slam win and against Saracens in the quarter-finals marking him out as a man the Scarlets will have to stop.
But despite being full of praise for the 23-year-old’s qualities Barclay isn’t too concerned and is adamant the Scarlets have enough about them to better Leinster at the contact area.
“Dan Leavy is doing very well and he’s had a very good year,” said Barclay. “He played well for Ireland and he’s been very effective for Leinster. He’s a young guy who is very powerful and has a massive work rate.
“I’m not here to talk him up because I’d rather speak about some of the guys I know better in our team. Their back-row is pretty impressive but I think we’ve got a pretty impressive one here as well.
“The contact area will be huge as will other areas like the scrum and lineout. All these things will be vitally important and whoever wins these small battles will likely win the game.
“It can be very hard to get the ball off Leinster because they are so strong at the breakdown and Ireland were the same in the Six Nations. We will have to defend well and be smart so that we don’t give too many penalties away.
“If they get down to the far end and they are holding the ball it’s going to lead to points. We’ve just got to make smart decisions because they are very good at the contact area.
“There probably will be less opportunities to jackal but we’ve got some guys who are brilliant over the ball and guys who make smart decisions as well.”
This is the Scarlets’ fourth European semi-final having suffered last-gasp heartache on two occasions. Back in 2000 a Paul Grayson penalty kick for Northampton Saints from the halfway line in the 80th minute was enough to deny Llanelli a place in the final.
There was worse to come in 2002 against Leicester Tigers at Nottingham’s City Ground. With Llanelli leading as the match moved into it’s final stages a Tim Stimpson penalty from 60 metres out, which hit the cross bar and the post before going over, left the West Walians stunned.
Barclay admits the class of 2018 are aware of previous heartache but insists it will have no relevance tomorrow.
“We aren’t too conscious of our history in Europe but it is one of those things that does get brought up,” he said.
“As a group we are focused on the here and now. Ken Owens is the only player that was part of the squad the last time we reached this stage 11 years ago.
“The guys are just excited about the occasion and what we’ve achieved. We want to keep the journey going into the final. We have to win this game.
“It’s comfortably the biggest game I’ve been involved in since I’ve been at the Scarlets. The final of the PRO12 last season was fantastic but this is Europe and we haven’t been in the semi-final for 11 years. It’s right up there with the biggest games of my career.”
Wayne Pivac’s side have won many admirers for their free-flowing attacking brand of rugby which has already brushed aside Bath, Toulon and La Rochelle this season.
Indeed, even Leinster have fallen victims to the Scarlets’ ruthless back play as they were downed at the RDS in last year’s PRO12 semi-final.
But unlike previous years the Scarlets have one of the meanest defences in the competition, having survived relentless pressure against both Toulon and La Rochelle only to emerge victorious.
Barclay insists the side pride themselves on their defence and is the reason they have been transformed into contenders for European rugby’s most coveted prize.
“We are away from home in Europe so we are going to have to defend very well,” said Barclay.
“They’ve got a lot of bonus point wins in the PRO14 so their attacking prowess is pretty impressive. But defensively we’ve been good all year.
“We’ve got a great culture and everybody wants to work hard, while we’ve also got a lot of guys who are good over the ball. How we deal with Johnny Sexton is also going to be important.
“It’s going to be a team job. It’s not just about shutting down him but it’s about shutting down space.
“It’s not a secret it’s just a case of trying to slow their ball down and bring line speed. It’s not as if they read that they will be surprised because it’s what every team is trying to do.”
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