One year on from last season’s Champions Cup defeat to Clermont, Leinster are back in the semi finals again with a spring in their step! This time the boys in blue face a very familiar foe, the red army, our biggest rivals. No, I’m not referring to Munster, that rivalry fizzled out years ago. It’s Scarlets that are the new red army and in my opinion they are Leinster’s biggest rival over the past 1-2 years. Tomorrow will be the 4th time we’ll have faced this team in one year, Leinster have lost one, won one, and drawn one in that time. The most memorable of those three previous fixtures is of course the Pro12 semi final at the RDS last year where Scarlets ran riot to record a famous win at our home ground.
“We learn more from our defeats than our victories.” This has been very evident from Leinster as they look stronger and more well equipped to go all the way this year. The heartache of last season’s exit in both competitions has driven this squad to be better individuals and ultimately deliver better as a team. And deliver they have, beating all of Europe’s brightest talent so far.
Although the Welsh based side are not known for being Eurpean juggernaughts, Scarlets are the closest to Leinster in terms of skill and squad quality, and they have been very impressive throughout the Pro14 campaign this season. They had a shaky start to the Champions Cup but have managed to find their European form and get to their third semi final in their Champions Cup history, but have never progressed past this point. They are a squad filled with warriors that play for each other, that never give up, and are extremely hungry for glory on the European stage. Similar to Leinster, they have a pedigree in their squad that is hard to match, they are a team punching above their weight at times but are still able to knock out the biggest of contenders. Unlike Leinster however is their experience in the ranks, where Leinster appear to have the upper hand, although more and more Scarlets players are being added to Gatland’s international side. With an unpredictable, face paced and merciless approach to their rugby, Scarlets have emerged as a major force to be reckoned with, and are in my opinion the toughest contenders in comparison to the other teams in the semi finals (Racing and Munster). Leinster know a lot about this side as they’ve played them 3 times already in the past 12 months, so there is familiarity among the coaches and players alike, and no love lost. Tomorrow’s match is set to be a cracker as these two sides lock horns in the Aviva stadium, Leinster’s home from home, and for the Scarlets it’s the stadium filled with fond memories where they lifted the Pro12 trophy last May after demolishing Munster in the final.
Cullen has selected as strong a team as he has available for this encounter, lets take a closer look:
15. Rob Kearney (194)
14. Fergus McFadden (168)
13. Garry Ringrose (46)
12. Robbie Henshaw (22)
11. Isa Nacewa (181)
10. Johnny Sexton (145) CAPTAIN
9. Jamison Gibson-Park (48)
1. Cian Healy (186)
2. Seán Cronin (148)
3. Tadhg Furlong (80)
4. Devin Toner (213)
5. James Ryan (11)
6. Scott Fardy (18)
7. Dan Leavy (51)
8. Jordi Murphy (103)
16. James Tracy (61)
17. Jack McGrath (128)
18. Andrew Porter (25)
19. Ross Molony (62)
20. Jack Conan (69)
21. Nick McCarthy (24)
22. Joey Carbery (33)
23. Jordan Larmour (17)
Bearing in mind that household names like Rhys Rudduck, James Lowe, Sean O’Brien and Luke McGrath are all unavailable for selection this week, a whopping 19 internationals are included in the match 23 for Leinster tomorrow afternoon, the majority of which have all been involved in Ireland’s recent Grand Slam winning Six Nations squad.
Johnny Sexton will captain the side with Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum half. Gibson-Park replaces the injured Luke McGrath in the starting lineup, so Nick Mc Carthy will provide backup on the bench. It could be a weakness for Leinster as it would have been hoped that McGrath would start and Gibson-Park would come on at some stage.
In the back three, we have Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Isa Nacewa, Cullen clearly opting for experience and a tried and tested partnership. Robbie Henshaw returns from the should injury his sustained against Italy during Ireland’s 6 Nations campaign, and will be partnered by Garry Ringrose. This comes as great news as these two guys have been massively impressive together throughout this campaign.
The pack consists of three things, strength strength and some more strength. Healy, Cronin and Furlong will provide the necessary power and incredible ball handling skills to seriously trouble their opposition. Toner, Ryan, Fardy, Leavy and Murphy will provide a rock solid defense and exceptional mauling options for Leinster when needed. This is the area in the starting 15 that appears to be far superior to Scarlet’s arsenal.
The bench comprises of 6 Irish internationals and two rising stars. Tracy, McGrath, Porter, Malony and Conan will provide more than enough backup to our pack if and when they’re sprung from the bench into action. Then there’s Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour ready to bring their attacking spark into the fray of battle which again will cause serious trouble to the Scarlets’ defense.
James Lowe misses out on selection this week due to Luke McGrath’s omission. Reason being, Jamison Gibson-Park has to start, leaving Leinster with only a quota of one other non-European players that can be selected. In this case, Fardy has got the nod as his power and skill is unrivaled.
Scarlets look very strong from 1-15 with big Welsh internationals and captained by Ken Owens who is playing his 11th season with Scarlets. Their bench, albeit talented, does not cut the mustard in terms of containing the same level of threat as Leinster’s.
Where the game will be won
The Leinster squad surely remember the heartache and embarrassment of being defeated in the Pro14 semi final by a 14 man Scarlets side at the RDS last season. I’m sure the boys in blue don’t need much motivation to drive on and get to another Champions Cup final but I’m sure the thought of getting revenge on their new enemy will be a focal point. On the flip side, Scarlets will have no fear (allegedly) about coming back to the Aviva to take on the team they defeated in the same county 12 months ago.
Needless to say, it’s going to be a tough challenge for both sides who have massive ambition and confidence in overcoming this hurdle to continue the hunt for silverware. So, I expect the starting exchanges to be an area in which both sides will want to lay down a crucial marker. The first score could be crucial to deciding the final outcome and if either side gets their tales up early while the other side is caught napping it could be curtains for the other side. My cheeky prediction is that Leinster will score an early try but it wont be long until Scarlets strike back. I think Nacewa will score first. If Leinster can manage to do this and keep ahead, especially towards the 60 minute mark, the bench from Leinster will be too strong for Scarlets. Leinster cannot afford to go behind in this match and in my opinion, this is where Kearney and McFadden in particular will need to be on song in defense as Scarlets are capable of ripping up the most experienced defensive operators. Scarlets will not give up but they have a habit of making lots of mistakes in desperation when trying to chase down a lead, so keeping ahead on the scoreboard will wear them down.
Scarlets are brimming with confidence (allegedly) and know what it takes to win big games, and in particular, how to beat Leinster in a semi final. However, I feel that there has been a lot of cockiness coming from the Scarlets camp this week, I think these lads are actually very nervous and worried about their opposition (which is why I used the word allegedly a couple of times in this write up), otherwise they wouldn’t be shouting about their “no fear” and “full of confidence” every chance they get. It’s as if they are trying to convince the media, but more so themselves. Leinster have learned a lot since last season, this is most evident in how they ended the group stages as top seeds even though they had the “group of death”. Leinster are also 1st in Conference B of the Pro14, 5 points clear of 2nd place Scarlets. I don’t see Leinster dropping off form at this stage this season, I think they’ll actually improve and give the coaches, the supporters and themselves the result that they deserve and have earned. Scarlets are trying their best to perform at the highest level in Europe but are not equipped to take down the blue juggernaughts on their home patch. “No fear”, “Full of confidence”, “our supporters are worth 10 of theirs”. I’m scarlet for them and by the time the full time whistle is blown, their faces will match their jerseys!
Leinster 27 Scarlets 17
Match day score Leinster 38 Scarlets 16