Sexton celebrates Leinster's fifth try. Morgan Treacy/INPHO
marching on

Five-star Leinster book their ticket to Bilbao with scintillating victory over Scarlets

Leo Cullen’s side were at their brilliant best at the Aviva Stadium to cruise through to next month’s Champions Cup final.

Leinster 38

Scarlets 16

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

THE GOOD DAYS keep rolling for Leinster, and how, as Leo Cullen’s side continue to raise the bar, not only for themselves but for the rest of Europe, with this, another utterly breathtaking and formidable masterclass.

There was no repeat of last year, when Leinster’s encouraging season came crashing down with a semi-final defeat to Clermont, as the province — dominant in every facet here — march on to Bilbao, now within touching distance of a fourth European crown.

After clinically dispatching defending champions Saracens in the quarter-finals, Leinster moved up another gear to lay down their title credentials in emphatic, and impressive, fashion, running in five tries in a 22-point hammering of the Scarlets.

With Johnny Sexton pulling the strings, a powerful and dynamic pack bullying the opposition and a thrilling backline providing a devastating finishing ability, this turned into an exhibition match, rather than a European semi-final, as Leinster produced their big-game best.

In a campaign when they have racked up impressive win after win, this was arguably the best as they completely eviscerated a good side as their big-moment decision making, relentless work-rate and execution was simply too much for the Scarlets to contend with.

James Ryan — colossal again, but what’s new? — set the home side on their way after Leigh Halfpenny had opened the scoring, before Cian Healy and Fergus McFadden crossed during a dominant first-half showing from Leinster.

Robbie Henshaw, on his return from shoulder reconstruction, was absolutely immense and put in a quite-remarkable 80-minute shift in midfield alongside Garry Ringrose, as man-of-the-match Scott Fardy and Sexton sealed victory after the break.

A scintillating attacking performance, furnished with five scores, was a joy to watch, but a word too for Leinster’s defensive resilience as they dominated from start to finish, not allowing Wayne Pivac’s side so much throw a punch in anger.

It says a lot about Leinster’s brilliance and superiority that Cullen was able to take Sexton off with 20 minutes remaining with the contest already settled. A genuinely magnificent performance.

Onwards to Bilbao on the 12 May, and it will take something special from either Racing or Munster to stop Leinster in their tracks.

James Ryan tackled by Rob Evans Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Fardy was immense and at the heart of everything Leinster did, so too the Michael’s boys, Ryan and Dan Leavy, while Henshaw, Kearney and McFadden all stood up, as the peerless Sexton finished with 18 points of his own.

The champions elect? You’d be mad to bet against it.

There was no danger of a repeat of Lyon 12 months ago, either. Leinster have learned their lessons, Fardy a robust addition to an altogether more gnarled pack, although his afternoon started with a high tackle on Steff Evans, allowing Halfpenny to open the scoring from the tee.

Scarlets’ lead didn’t last long, the Welsh region playing catch-up from there, as Leinster’s immense tempo and ruck-speed, particularly inside the opening quarter, saw them make serious inroads and set the tone for another breathtaking display.

Tadhg Furlong was the only Leinster forward who started last season’s Pro12 semi-final defeat to Scarlets, and it showed from early on, with the province’s pack an entirely different beast this time around.

The lineout provided the platform for four, if not five, glorious first phase passages of play from Cullen’s men during the first half alone, and, with willing and interchangeable runners, created the overlap with fluent ease.

Kearney spiralled one into touch with the outside of his left boot and when Gareth Davies looked to clear his lines, Fardy made the most of his towering frame to charge down the kick and hand Leinster the impetus.

From there, it was poetry in motion, a beautiful, sweeping move off the top of the lineout cutting Scarlets apart. Gibson-Park-Sexton-Nacewa-McFadden, Leinster moved it from left to right with pace and precision, the red shirts scrambling across to avert the initial danger, before Leinster recycled furiously for Ryan to show his innate power from close range.

A first European try for the 21-year-old wunderkind who still has yet to taste defeat in his professional career.

Leinster had showed up, anyway.

Henshaw’s spinning pass off his left created the space on the edge for Nacewa, who chipped-and-chased and when the cavalry arrived, Evans was hauled into touch by Kearney. Fist pumps all around, the heat turned up inside Lansdowne Road.

Fergus McFadden scores a try despite the efforts of Steff Evans Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

The province were laying siege on the Scarlets line, and even when Pivac’s side stood firm to win a turnover scrum underneath their own posts after Healy’s knock-on, McFadden snatched possession off Evans as he looked to streak clear from deep on the far side.

Leinster were switching styles, and their angle of attack, with ease, as Sexton ensured their dominance was reflected on the scoreboard with a straightforward penalty after Scarlets went off their feet.

McFadden took his eye off the ball from the restart, allowing Halfpenny to reduce the deficit with his second penalty, but normal service wasn’t long in resuming, the majority in attendance purring with excitement as Leinster’s attack continued to hum.

You’d never guess Henshaw had just undergone shoulder reconstruction. He carried like a man possessed, dominant in every collision, and his team-mates fed off that energy, with Kearney taking up the mantle to bring Leinster inside the opposition 22.

Sexton spotted space on the right and although Davies did unbelievably well to gather the cross-field kick under pressure from McFadden, the Scarlets scrum-half was only able to carry across his own line, presenting Leinster with another prime attacking platform. Relentless, don’t-take-your-eye off it stuff.

Leinster unleashed the same play again, not caring a jot about Beirne and his buddies, as McFadden ran off Gibson-Park to hammer within five of the line, before Fardy put the head down and Healy finished off for a 17-6 lead.

This was Leinster in big-game mode, Cullen’s new wave bullying and battering their way to rarefied heights. The third try was sumptuous. No matter what Scarlets did, the home side instantly bettered. A powerful maul on the left created the space; heavy carries, rapid cleans and the inevitable overlap and finish.

Near-perfect rugby, glorious.

McFadden got his just reward for a fine first-half shift, but in the act of grounding in the corner was clattered late by Evans, who was fortunate not to see yellow. The Leinster winger didn’t return from the dressing room, Jordan Larmour taking his place on the right wing.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates scoring a try Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

And the former St Andrew’s man was straight into the thick of the action as Leinster, showing no mercy, went for the jugular.

After showcasing his dancing feet and lightning turn of pace, Larmour then stripped Rhys Patchell after the Scarlets fullback had claimed a high ball, allowing Ryan to set Fardy away with a clinical pop pass.

In between, Sexton had cut through a ragged Scarlets defensive line to start a move which ended with the colossal Fardy barreling over for Leinster’s fourth of the afternoon.

Game over, but Leinster weren’t done, as they showed no sign of easing up, both in defence and attack. A drive deep into the Scarlets 22 by the forwards, Gibson-Park’s flat pass left and Sexton stepped off his left foot to dance over the line and dot down in what was his final involvement.

Tadhg Beirne sniped over for a consolation score at the death, and it was disappointing for Scarlets, and their small pockets of travelling supporters, that they never showed up on the big occasion, the defending Pro12 champions completely blown away by Leinster.

There is no shame in that, however, the potential of this Leinster team knowing no bounds. A five-star performance, a fourth European star now within their grasp.

Leinster scorers:
Tries: James Ryan, Cian Healy, Fergus McFadden, Scott Fardy, Johnny Sexton
Conversions: Johnny Sexton [5 from 5]
Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]
Scarlets scorers:
Tries: Tadhg Beirne
Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny [1 from 1]
Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny [3 from 3]

LEINSTER: 15. Rob Kearney, 14. Fergus McFadden (Jordan Larmour 40’), 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Isa Nacewa, 10. Johnny Sexton (captain) (Joey Carbery 61’), 9. Jamison Gibson-Park (Nick McCarthy 72’); 1. Cian Healy (Jack McGrath 54’), 2. Seán Cronin (James Tracy 58’), 3. Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter 61’), 4. Devin Toner, 5. James Ryan (Ross Molony 72’), 6. Scott Fardy, 7. Dan Leavy (Jack Conan 67’), 8. Jordi Murphy.

SCARLETS: 15. Rhys Patchell, 14. Leigh Halfpenny, 13. Scott Williams, 12. Hadleigh Parkes, 11. Steff Evans, 10. Dan Jones, 9. Gareth Davies; 1. Rob Evans, 2. Ken Owens (captain), 3. Samson Lee, 4. Tadhg Beirne, 5. David Bulbring, 6. Aaron Shingler, 7. James Davies, 8. John Barclay.

Replacements: 16. Ryan Elias, 17. Dylan Evans, 18. Werner Kruger, 19. Lewis Rawlins, 20. Steve Cummins, 21. Aled Davies, 22. Steff Hughes, 23. Will Boyde.

Referee: Romain Poite.

Attendance: 48,455.

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