In the Heineken Cup nobody remembers performances in October, only results. So in that regard Leinster will be satisfied with their two wins from two as they ran out 20-13 winners on the road against the Scarlets (having narrowly accounted for Exeter at home the week before). Up front last Saturday’s performance was more convincing from the champions but their levels dropped in the second half letting Scarlets back into this encounter. Leinster lacked their characteristic attacking flair and second half sloppiness meant it was much closer than it should have been. In December they will need a much more sustained 80 minutes to live with pace-setters Clermont who have revenge on their minds.
The two out-halves on display in this game are the top contenders for Warren Gatland’s Lions test 10 jersey. Both were lacklustre; neither playmaker made a strong claim for the position. Jonathan Sexton remains the favourite but it was his sloppy kicking from hand in the second half that allowed Scarlets the field position to claw their way back into the game. Sexton kicked four penalties and a sublime drop goal but he missed a few that he would normally get which would have closed out the game. He also kicked a couple of balls out on the full surrendering crucial field-position. Welsh out-half Rhys Priestland had a nightmare from the tee. He was given a number of chances to punish Leinster’s indiscipline but he could not, missing three shots at goal.
The two tries scored in this game pitted youth against experience. In a fifteen man game one-on-one battles are rare but decisive. In Parc Y Scarlets the game’s two tries came as a result of two match-ups created by the grit and grind of their team-mates but finished off superbly by individuals. The first was when Leinster had a penalty advantage and Sexton used it well placing a cross-field kick right over the try line. Isa Nacewa had the momentum and rose above the towering George North to claim Sexton’s kick. He still had a lot to do as he tore himself free of North’s grasp and deftly touched down all in one movement. The touch-judge correctly called it a try and the TMO was not needed. North’s talent and promise is as large as his 6ft 4 inch stature but Nacewa’s guile and determination showed that the Welsh youngster still has quite a bit to learn. One nil to experience. However youth would have its moment later in the game.
Scarlets’ centre Gareth Maule would have seen his battle against Brian O’Driscoll as the biggest test of his rugby career to date. O’Driscoll, as an outside centre, has had few peers in his thirteen year reign. He alerted the world to his talents on the 2001 Lions tour to Australia and this summer he will look to book his place on a fourth Lions tour and his second Down Under. On 52 minutes, off a lineout, Maule caught a skip pass from his out-half Priestland. The centre checked briefly which caught O’Driscoll on his heels. The Irish captain never recovered from his momentary flat-footedness as the centre glided around him and through the gap showing a sharp turn of pace. The veteran, tracking back, dived in desperation but couldn’t grab a firm hold of his opponent who slipped away to touch down in the corner. This was the only time in the game that the Leinster defence was breached in what was an otherwise excellent defensive display. Maule will never forget the try and it brought Scarlets right back into the game.
The visitors’ response was led by their front-row, anchored by Mike Ross and bolstered by the introduction of the South African pair Heinke Van Der Merwe and Ricardt Strauss, which obliterated the Scarlets’ eight running them backwards, ensuring that Sexton’s boot could guide his team to victory.
Leinster’s cup winning mentality has been founded on an abrasive defence. Led by the ever vocal Shane Jennings they tackled ferociously and competed for every ball at the breakdown. They stifled the Scarlets’ backline, who are not only the top domestic scorers with nineteen tries but two months ago had put 45 points on a shadow Leinster side. The Welsh region was clearly missing their tank, Jonathan Davies, at inside centre and so they lacked the dynamic go forward ball that he gives them. Over the last two years he has made a habit of crossing the whitewash against both the provinces and our national team so his absence was noticeable.
Coach Schmidt a month ago was nervously staring into three important games with his team misfiring. Their resurgence started with their win against Munster and they have found themselves on the right side of Heineken Cup results, which is what matters. Now he can address performance issues. He will look to sharpen Leinster’s attack and that will be aided by the return of a number of marquee players from injury. He has a month in the Rabo Direct for his team to improve and with continuity they should. The double-header against Clermont in December will determine who will have the home quarter-final.