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Saturday 17 November 2018

Scoreline looks close but Leinster were never in danger

GREAT BLUE WAVE: Sean Cronin celebrates with (from left) Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan after scoring Leinster’s third try. Photo: SPORTSFILE
GREAT BLUE WAVE: Sean Cronin celebrates with (from left) Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan after scoring Leinster’s third try. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Leinster completed the perfect season with a full trophy cabinet to brag about after a one-sided 40-32 demolition of Scarlets.

Leinster also the gave their refreshingly humble captain Isa Nacewa an appropriate send-off as well as rewarding the efforts of over 55 players used over the season.

A year or two ago the likes of Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Joey Carbery and others in the Leinster academy were busy setting their goals, and while they may have had realistic dreams of ascending to the highest levels of the game at some stage, I am sure they will pinch themselves at how quickly and easily it has happened.

The likes of Leavy and Ryan are now not only ranked in Europe, but would be regarded as a couple of bona-fide rugby stars on a world stage.

To cap it off, some of Leinster's young guns have now won a Grand Slam, European Cup and Pro 14 medal - all achieved in one remarkable season.

On Saturday afternoon at the Aviva, more than 40,000 spectators saw Leinster prove how they are the best provincial rugby team this side of the equator.

One would love for the organisers of the world game to pitch Leinster up against the likes of the Canterbury Crusaders to decide just who is the best club side in the world.

The 40-32 victory makes this Pro 14 final seem closer than it actually was.

While I am delighted to say my prediction of a Leinster win by more than one score was on the button, in realistic terms the contest was over for the visitors just before half-time when the game's puppet master, Johnny Sexton, threw a sublime pass that sent Kiwi winger James Lowe over in the corner for the try.

Dominant

At that stage the Scarlets were trying to live off Leinster's scraps and having a devil of a job getting the ball back from a dominant pack led by the outstanding Devin Toner.

Sean Cronin's score with 30 minutes to play sealed the win, but by then the Scarlets were looking down the eye of an evening to forget.

The Welsh side did rally at the end, just as they had a month ago, but at that stage Leinster already had thoughts of the beach and the after- party.

The scoreline also suggests an exciting enough game, but the Scarlets really couldn't get any continuity going, making too many basic errors that played into Leinster's hands.

As a result, the game stuttered rather than motored as a contest, but there were some great moments too, especially the skill set of winger Larmour, who scooped the ball up off the pitch in one hand at full speed to score the try of the match.

I have no doubt that just about any other player in the world would have chosen to toe the ball over the line rather than risk the pick-up, and on another day Leo Cullen may have screamed obscenities from the dugout. But this was Larmour's moment and he took it.

Minutes later Carbery, who had just replaced the brilliant Sexton, sold an outrageous sidestep to the Scarlets rush defence as he eventually saw No8 Jack Conan in under the sticks - some brilliant individual touches that showed Leinster's strength in depth and ability to counter attack from anywhere.

Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac must have been pulling his hair out at times, as it seemed every time that the Scarlets got some ball they over-complicated the game plan. Rather than be patient they just turned the ball back to a Leinster team that held it for large periods of the game.

Scarlets outhalf Rhys Patchell's exit strategy with the boot was, in most cases, pretty poor, as was the Scarlets' ability to contest the ball in the air, apart from the electric winger Johnny McNicholl, who scored three tries and was again Scarlets' most dangerous player.

Wales will surely snap the Kiwi-born player up the day his three-year residency comes.

The encouraging thing for Leinster was that they won this game without some first-team players, and more were lost as Saturday's game wore on, noticeably their talismanic captain in the first quarter and key playmaker Sexton later in the half.

Treatment

That also doesn't take into account the likes of Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw, Sean O'Brien, Scott Fardy and others who were not available.

Sexton came in for his usual amount of off-the-ball treatment, and one still wonders if taking Ireland's main hope of a World Cup medal to Australia is worth it in the long run.

A year out from Japan and Sexton is still struggling to last a full game. One fears that the Aussies will target Ireland's main weapon.

I have a gut feeling that Joe Schmidt may only use him when absolutely needed and is taking him more for his experience rather than to run him out of juice.

What a season it has been for Leo Cullen and his coaching ticket, and while they must have had dreams of such evolution for this squad, when it happens it is sometimes hard to believe.

Congratulations to a brilliant Leinster team and what they have achieved. It almost seemed too easy in the end, but that is just testament to how high the bar is set for this side.

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