Australia’s Scott Fardy was at the heart of a dominant Leinster display as the three-times champions stormed into the European Cup final with a 38-16 victory over the Scarlets at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
In what was effectively a ‘home’ game for the Dublin-based province, they outscored their Welsh opponents by five tries to one, with former Wallaby back-row Fardy one of their scorers.
Johnny Sexton, the fly-half mastermind behind Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam this season, also scored a try and kicked a further 13 points into the bargain.
It seemed all the Scarlets would have to show for their efforts were a trio of Leigh Halfpenny penalties until former Leinster man Tadhg Beirne crossed for a 79th-minute try that was precious little consolation to the Llanelli-based side.
Next month’s final in Bilbao could be an All-Ireland affair if Munster win away to Paris club Racing 92 in Sunday’s second semi-final.
Wayne Pivac’s side spoke of travelling to Dublin with no fear, full of confidence from the win they enjoyed over the same opponents 12 months ago in the Pro12 semi-final.
– ‘Turning point’ –
But they were simply overpowered and outpaced by a relentless Leinster, who scored the first try of the game in the 10th minute and never let up until the break.
“It was one of our best performances of the season,” Leinster captain Sexton told Sky Sports. “We really did learn from last year’s game (the Pro12 semi-final loss) and maybe look back at it as a turning point.
“We hadn’t faced a semi-final defeat ever, so we learnt from it and I just said to the lads if we play well we have a chance, and that’s all we needed to worry about.”
Halfpenny opened the scoring following a high tackle by Fardy but from then on it was largely one-way traffic.
Leinster coach Leo Cullen’s game-plan was uncomplicated but effective: attack hard with one-off runners, hammer the opposition at the breakdown and quickly repeat.
Fardy’s block on Gareth Davies’ kick brought Leinster into the Scarlets 22 and the swarming blue shirts forced a line-out from which the first try came.
It was a wonderful set-piece move, begun and ended by James Ryan ?- with Jamison Gibson-Park, Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden all involved.
Sexton and Halfpenny swapped penalties as both sides made unforced errors, but it was when Leinster moved into their opponents’ 22 that the real damage was done.
Their forwards pounded away and, as they kept hold of the ball with confidence and precision, it was merely a question of who would score, with Ireland’s Cian Healy going over from close range before Sexton converted.
– Out of sight –
Scarlets enjoyed a few minutes on the front foot, from which they mined one penalty, but they could not stop Leinster scoring another try that left them 24-9 up at half-time.
Again the pack were key and, after sucking in the Scarlets’ defence Garry Ringrose flung the ball wide for McFadden to race home.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, Leinster were four scores in front and all but out of sight.
Jordan Larmour, on at the break for McFadden, ripped the ball from Rhys Patchell and three phases later Ryan and Fardy combined to send the blindside flanker, who won the last of his 29 caps two years ago, over for Leinster’s fourth try.
Sexton, who had been imperious throughout, got the try his display deserved on the hour mark.
The jubilant No 10 was withdrawn after his conversion to a massive ovation, a sign of how superior the Irish side were feeling.
Both sides began to dip further into their benches, but whoever came on in Scarlets’ red made little difference.
Beirne ?- a former Leinster academy player ? crossed the line with seconds to go, but it was far too little, too late for the Scarlets.