Leinster plan to raise bar even higher

Leinster 40 Scarlets 32
Two competitions, two trophies and two different ways to win them.

So what do you give the coach who has everything? Quite simply, more of the same.

With a first domestic and European double by a PRO14 club in the record books, Leinster boss Leo Cullen has challenged his magnificent boys in blue to repeat the feat when they return from their Ireland duties and a well-earned holiday.

Well what else would they be doing?

After an amazing unbeaten run to the Champions Cup and a fourth European title, thanks to a gritty win over Racing 92 in the Bilbao rain a fortnight earlier, Cullen’s players showcased their equally impressive attacking elan to see off defending champions Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Both trophies were earned with an underpinning of workrate, power, composure on both sides of the ball, and accuracy in execution that make this Leinster side such a standout group of players.

What they were unable to unleash in the San Mamés Stadium was the immense firepower that had been curbed by the conditions in the Basque city and an exceptional breakdown effort by Racing. Scarlets could never quite muster the same intensity and on hard ground in Dublin, Leinster had the recipe to cut loose, commiting wave after wave of hard ball carrying to pummel the Welsh region’s defensive line and exploit every error made by Wayne Pivac’s side.

Scarlets had given notice they would not be the pushover they had been on their last visit to Dublin in the Champions Cup semi-final and after a cagey opening half-hour had Leinster 9-6 ahead thanks to the immaculate Johnny Sexton outkicking Leigh Halfpenny by three penalties to two, the Irishmen started to move through the gears.

Devin Toner grabbed the opening try of the game on the half-hour following Leinster’s first real multi-phase powerplay, only for Johnny McNicholl to hit back with his first of three tries five minutes later.

Then came the game-defining period, a three-try burst of excellence either side of the interval kick-started by a break off the back of scrum by No.8 Jack Conan, one of several high-quality Leinster performances in this league final.

It led to a penalty which Sexton dispatched to the corner with aplomb and after a couple of powerful driving mauls, a short, sharp pass from scrum-half Luke McGrath through Sexton’s quick hands found James Lowe in the left corner to land a killer blow on the stroke of half time. Sexton’s touchline conversion was as Cullen described, another “mental trigger, positive for us, negative for Scarlets”, and Leinster took a 19-11 lead into the break.

By the 56th minute it was all over, the start of the second-half ignited by a high tackle on man-of-the-match Sexton by Scott Williams followed up by a hit from James Davies that was the latest of a series of heavy blows the Leinster fly-high had absorbed in the line of duty. He punished Scarlets with an inch-perfect penalty to the corner and another driving maul saw hooker Sean Cronin bustle over from short range. Sexton once again added two points, this time from the opposite touchline. More mental triggers, all negatives for the Welshmen.

The last thing Scarlets needed was the brilliant sequence of individual skill from Jordan Larmour that secured Leinster’s first league title since 2014, the 20-year-old Ireland wing playing his last game as an academy player collecting a Rhys Patchell grubber kick and wrapping his right boot around the ball to send it down the touchline over the heads of the Scarlets line before executing a sublime one-handed pick-up at full speed 10 metres out to apply the final nail in the red coffin.

When Joey Carbery’s conversion of Jack Conan’s try, Leinster’s fifth, brought up 40 points, it rendered a superb hat-trick by Scarlets wing McNicholl a statistical footnote. Now all that is required is for Cullen’s side to do it all over again next season. A double double is the next target.

“That’s the thing,” Cullen said. “It’s such a hungry group. The taste of success is nice and you can see the players in the dressing room at the moment - I’m trying to avoid it!

“It’s amazing just to be able to work so hard as a group together, you share the ups and downs and it’s not always straightforward at all. There’s going to be other players that are going to come through next year. It’s seeing the team progress and get better and better and we’ll just try and get better again.

“I was watching last night Montpellier against Lyon in the semi-final of the Top 14 and certainly the competition looks like it’s going to get better. There’s plenty of resources going thrown at certain teams around Europe and even looking at a bit of Saracens today as well, they look strong as well, a couple of key guys coming back from injury for them.

“Yeah, everybody’s going to get better and come back stronger and for us we need to focus on getting better,” the Leinster head coach concluded, before adding, “but that’s a different day’s work I think.”

There will be no more training or playing days for Leinster captain Isa Nacewa, whose 185th and final appearance in blue was short-lived, the Aucklander who kicked two late penalties to deliver a fourth European title, personally and for the side he graced in two spells since 2008, forced off with a “blown” calf after just 18 minutes.

“He’s in bits. Hopping on one leg,” said Cullen, who had earlier admitted parental wrongdoing in letting the 35-year-old out to play in the first place.

“He’s glued together there. He has unbelievable mental strength. I was talking to one of the players who wasn’t playing today, a very experienced player as well, and he was commenting on the mental strength of him, and he’s inspiration to all those young guys . It’s a little bit irresponsible potentially, but you see him at the end there and that’s what it needs sometimes. It needs that level of sacrifice to achieve great things.”

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; J Larmour, G Ringrose, I Nacewa - captain (R O’Loughlin, 18), J Lowe; J Sexton (J Carbery, 63), L McGrath (N McCarthy, 73); C Healy (J McGrath, 50), S Cronin (J Tracy, 60), T Furlong (A Porter, 60); D Toner, J Ryan; R Ruddock (S Fardy, 56), D Leavy (J Murphy, 66), J Conan.

SCARLETS: L Halfpenny; J McNicholl, S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans (T Prydie, 71); R Patchell (D Jones, 73), G Davies (J Evans, 71); R Evans (W Jones, 60), K Owens - captain (R Elias, 72), S Lee (W Kruger, 56); L Rawlins (D Bulbring, 64), S Cummins; A Shingler (W Boyde, 39), J Davies, T Beirne.

Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa).

60 Second Report

Key moment 

Leinster’s whirlwind of relentless pressure either side of half-time transformed a tight game into a procession. Leinster were just ahead at 14-11 before Scarlets succumbed to another blue wave of power, strong ball carriers battering down the door before James Lowe was put into the left corner after great hands by Johnny Sexton, the fly-half kicking over the extras for a 19-11 half-time lead. It was the same after the break as tries from Sean Cronin and a superb individual effort from Jordan Larmour made the outcome a formality after just 56 minutes.

Talking point 

Leinster became the first team to complete a European Cup and domestic double after following their Champions Cup victory two weeks ago with this PRO14 win and in beating defending champions Scarlets in magnificent style there can be no doubt that Leo Cullen’s side are the best in the business, their European superiority confirmed by this PRO14 crown.

Key man

 Johnny Sexton provided a masterclass at fly-half to guide Leinster to their historic European-PRO14 double, the Ireland playmaker pulling the strings and taking the blows as he put his body on the line to do his defensive duties. The highlight was a penalty he took after being high tackled, responding to the unnecessary attention with an inch-perfect kick to the right corner, from which the pack engineered a try for Sean Cronin en route to another trophy that had Sexton’s fingerprints all over it. Despite a scintillating hat-trick from Scarlets wing Johnny McNicholl, there’s was no denying Sexton the man-of-the-match honours.

Ref watch 

Stuart Berry’s calm, no-nonsense officiating of Leinster’s semi-final win over Munster last week and his willingness to keep the game flowing bagged the South African the reins for the first PRO14 final but this was a much more stop-start affair in the opening period, Scarlets repeatedly straying offside. Berry had one tough decision to make as Scott Williams made a high tackle on Johnny Sexton, with James Davies also going in high with a secondary tackle. There could have been a card but it was deemed only worthy of penalty. It was a marginal call.

Penalties conceded

Leinster 6 Scarlets 7

Injuries Leinster lost captain Isa Nacewa in his final game before retirement after just 18 minutes, the veteran had been playing through a variety of injuries over the past few weeks but something had to give and it was a calf muscle that saw him limp out to a standing ovation. Scarlets back-row lost flanker Aaron Shingler just before half-time, the knee injury ruling him out of Wales’s summer tour. Thankfully for Ireland, there were no injuries apparent to the members of Joe Schmidt’s squad heading to Australia next weekend.

Next up 

Leinster have brought down the curtain on a dream double-winning season for the boys in blue but there is still the small matter of a three-Test series in Australia, where a Grand Slam-winning Ireland squad backboned by the Champions Cup and PRO14 winners will meet the Wallabies in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney on June 10, 17, and 24. The Irish depart for the Antipodes this Friday after a short training camp in Kildare.


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