Leinster v Scarlets – 19 May 2017

Just like the title of the very first Star Wars movie, we have a ‘New Hope’, another chance to win a semi final! But like the key character in that movie Obi Wan, the Pro12 is our ‘Only Hope’ after losing to Clermont in shocking fashion! I use these cringey comparisons because you’re going to read the word ‘hope’ a few more times in this write-up, and sure don’t we all like a little bit of cheese now and again? No? Well, ok then, I apologise!

Unfortunately, hope will not get Leinster to the final, at least for the players anyway. Belief will be the difference between the two sides. Belief in their abilities, in each other, in the coaches, and in the preparation they’re putting in right now on the training field.

Here is my example of the difference between hope and belief: Before every trip I take to Dublin, I always fill the car with petrol knowing that I’ll need it for the 450km round trip. By the time I get to Dublin, the tank will be a closing in on half empty (or half full blah blah blah), so there’s plenty of petrol there for the return journey.

However, on the way back to Galway with just over half a tank of petrol, I start to wonder if there’s enough petrol to get me home and as I pass more and more garages on the way to the M6, I start to hope that I’ve made the right decision in trusting the petrol gauge displayed on my dashboard. And I do! But as I get closer and closer to Athlone, the final garage before I reach Galway, I start to wonder about it again and hope there’s enough in the tank. And there is! So I stop at Athlone and fill up the car again even though I know I’ve enough in the tank. Why do I do that? Probably human nature, and definitely because of the unknown, the what if’s, and “to be on the safe side.” The main factor that makes we do it in my opinion is hope. I hoped that I’d have enough petrol to get me back to Galway when I left Dublin, I hoped the car would eventually get me back without conking out on the motorway. I hoped the dashboard fuel gauge was right. I didn’t believe that there was enough petrol in the tank, not 100% anyway, otherwise I wouldn’t stop. This is the key difference. Belief would have kept me going, but hope made me stop.

This is an analogy that I believe is relatable (albeit loosely) to sport, and in particular to what is going on in the mindset preparation at Leinster’s training HQ, and indeed Scarlets’. Afterall, you can have the best skills in the world but if you don’t believe in yourself and believe in your skillset, those skills are useless. Obviously, this is a pretty basic understanding that most people are/should be aware of, but it’s not something that is always easily lived by. However, I guarantee you, come 9:30pm on Friday, one team in the RDS will die by it!

Scarlets come into this match causing supporters and sports journalists to scratch their heads and wonder “how did they get here”. One reason for that is due to the fact that Scarlets haven’t reached this stage in 5 seasons. The other reason is because no one has really been fancying their chances of glory up until now. Sound familiar? This Scarlets team are in a lot of ways like Connacht last season. They’re underrated, under respected, very much unknown at this juncture of the Pro12, and very much underestimated. For example, Scarlets are the only team in Europe to have come up against the raining champions Saracens and not lost (they came away with a draw in Parc Y Scarlets) this season. The same team also beat Toulon this season, and we know well that is no easy task. On the last weekend in February, they also travelled to Thomond Park and trailed Munster 21,6 at half time, only to go on and win the match 21,30! Now there’s belief. They’ve become quite the giant killers. They have only lost one match since that game (5 out of 6), and from those five matches, they have scored more points and tries than any of the top 4. Four of those wins were bonus point victories too, one of which was against Ospreys last weekend.

Leisnter come into this match ticking a box, sure everyone knew we’d get to this stage at the start of the season. If you told me that we’d be facing Scarlets, I’d have punched the air, not that I normally do that, it’s just the only physical description I can use to describe how I would feel…. Anyway, I would not have expected Scarlets to get to this stage, somewhat how I would have felt about Connacht the previous season, and sure we know how that went.

Leinster have been causing their own trouble in the Pro12 and in Europe too however, carving their way through Montpellier, putting over 100 points on Northampton in back to back games at Christmas, dispatching Wasps with a master class performance in the Champions Cup quarter final, and breaking the tries and points record in the pool stages along the way. We’ve also broken the all time points scored and tries scored in the Pro12 this season. And to put some perspective into the upcoming Leinster v Scarlets match, the very next weekend after Munster lost to Scarlets in Thomond Park, Scarlets trailed Leinster 12,9 at half time, only this time Leinster went on to win the match 45,9. We are in essence quite the killer of the giant killers.

This weekend, the slate is clean, the stats somewhat go out the window. It’s knockout rugby, anything can happen in the semi finals as they say. Albeit, no home team in the Pro12 has ever been beaten, but again, as they say, the records are their to be broken.

So, the question I ask myself at this point is before every match is “who do I hope will win” and “who do I believe will win”? My initial thought is that I believe Leinster can win, I just hope they show up!! 

The game tomorrow will be won by the team who truly believes they can lift the trophy next week. The team that lets hope sink in and wonder about the what ifs and the unknown will have a tough day at the office. Both teams coming into this match are brimming with talent and great success over the last 21 Pro12 fixtures. Each team have threats that can put the other team under huge pressure and cause problems in attack and defense. Scarlets for example are excellent at winning turnovers and have a great ability to get the ball out wide to fast running wingers at a moment’s notice. Leinster on the other hand have an incredible line speed and beautifully inventive attacking plays that every team in the Pro12 have massively struggled to defend against all season. The form book proves this game to be one hell of a contest, but on paper there’s only one winner and that’s Leinster. The only major issue with Leinster has been their noticeable dip in form since losing to Clermont last month. Leinster has one win out of three (including the loss to Clermont), a one point win against Glasgow at the RDS. Leinster’s game against Ulster was a dead rubber in terms of Leinster’s qualification to the semi final, but the manner in which we lost was dire. There was no heart and sole in the team and they never looked like taking the game to Ulster. That same day, Scarlets put 30 points on Connacht to secure their 3rd place on the table and a trip to Dublin tomorrow.

But as I said, the slate is clean coming into this match.

Where will the game be won
Belief. If Leinster and Scarlets come into this match truly believing they can win the game, Leinster will come out victorious. It’s as simple as that. Similarly, if Leinster show some of the complacency they’ve shown the past few weeks, I think Scarlets could cause a big upset. They are going to be really up for this match, they know that it’s a big ask to go to the RDS and come out on top. So they will most likely throw the kitchen sink at us. I believe Leinster will do the same and leave everything out on the pitch, they have to! The players haven’t said too much this week but I get the impression from a couple of key interviews with Lancaster and Triggs, the team know what has been happening recently and they know they need to get their form back. There’s also been some mentions of mindset from Nacewa and Sexton over the past week or two so I believe this is something that the squad has been working on. 

Where the game will be lost

Leinster’s set piece has been 50/50 over the past month or so. Our scrum is impeccable but our lineout has been atrocious. That needs to be fixed for this weekend and “hopefully” for the final next week! We have Devin Toner, probably the best lineout operator in Europe, we just should not be losing a lot of lineouts, especially our own. There is clearly a communication issue in the lineout from hooker to lock and it is in serious need of fixing. I think Scarlets will try a kicking game plan due to our lineout issues and try to control territory in our half by kicking to touch a lot more than usual. If our lineout problems persist, it’ll pay dividends to Scarlets. Keep an eye on this area of the game, I think it could potentially be where Leinster could lose this match.

Prediction

After looking at the team selections, Leinster have a lot more experience and punch in their team than Scarlets have. Carbery at 15 is crucial, he’ll cause a lot of problems for Scarlets, I think he might even bag himself a try which he’s notorious in achieving when playing in that position. I predict Sexton to have a massive impact on this game and have a key influence on our attack throughout the match.

I’ve mentioned clean slates, hope, and belief in this write up. Clean slates is what Leinster need to win this match judging by our last 2-3 performances. Hope is something I rely on a lot when watching Leinster in semi finals, just like I do when I’m looking at the fuel gauge in my car while on the M6. But, unlike my car and unlike the frailties of hope, for this week, I 100% believe Leinster have more in the ‘tank’ and will win this game. I don’t think it will be straightforward but it will be decisive, filled with hunger and will show Munster/Ospreys what a true champion looks like.

Leinster 25, Scarlets 17

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