The opening minutes of Friday night’s fixture at Parc y Scarlets went almost perfectly for the West Wales region. With just four minutes on the clock, pressing deep in to Leinster territory, centre Steve Shingler slotted over the first points of the game to hand the Scarlets a 3-0 lead.
Just a few minutes later, international centre Scott Williams stole the ball in the midfield to make a superb break. Racing to the corner he looked clear in for a try until a high tackle from Leinster full back Dave Kearney saw him fall short of the line. A yellow card for Kearney and another three points from the boot of Shingler saw the Scarlets extend their lead.
Again momentum was all with the home side. Another great break, this time from back row Aaron Shingler saw the Scarlets again racing into the Leinster 22. Slick hands saw full back Gareth Owen brought down just a few meters out yet quick recycling and precise passing saw captain Rob McCusker cross for a very well earned try. Steven Shingler converted to hand the Scarlets a 13-0 lead.
Old habits however started to creep back into the game. Just a few minutes after McCusker had crossed, Leinster with astute attacking play had a lineout 5m out from the Scarlets’ try line. A quick take and a superb drive saw the Scarlets short in defence for Leinster to cross for a very easy and well worked try. New Leinster signing fly half Gopperth easily converted.
What followed was period after period of pressure from the Scarlets in attack yet time and again ball was either spilled going in to contact or passes went astray as the welsh team looked to be forcing the ball. Each time the ball was dropped momentum was handed straight back to Leinster who wasted no time in pinning the Scarlets back into their own territory.
Frustrations were starting to build, yet neither side could really build on their chances and the teams went in to the break with the Scarlets leading 16-10.
The second half couldn’t have started in a worse fashion for the Scarlets. Leinster came out hard and scored a try in the 41st minute through Murphy. Gopperth converted and it handed Leinster the lead for the first time in the match. A penalty five minutes later saw Leinster stretch their lead, yet all their hard work was undone moments later when replacement wing Hudson was yellow carded for taking out Scarlets winger Liam Williams in the air in a dangerous collision.
What should have marked the Scarlets making a comeback in to the match instead saw a rushed lineout, excellently spoiled by Leinster, and handed both territory and confidence back to the Irish side. The Scarlets managed just to score three points in the next ten minutes, and going in to the last quarter of the match, with just one point in it, it seemed that the Scarlets’ scrum would provide them with the necessary platform to gather themselves and to finally turn all of their attacking possession in to points.
Instead Leinster showed in the last fifteen minutes a true master class of finishing. Any opportunity they had to score they took, and Scarlets heads started to drop as again whenever they managed to get any good attacking position an inevitable handling error would hand advantage straight back to their rivals.
Three tries from Leinster in the last twelve minutes saw them earn a deserved winning try bonus point that also saw them get their best start to the season in years. The Scarlets will be left rueing their missed chances and bemoaning their poor handling skills.
What is more concerning for the Scarlets is the manner in which the self -destruct button was pressed in the second half, when instead cool heads and composure was needed. They will need to make big improvements in their handling going in to the contact area for next week when they face Italians Treviso at home. The intensity of their first half performance needs to be emulated and improved upon if they are to put right all of their mistakes going in to round two.
Leinster will be very pleased with how they weathered the Scarlets storm first half, and their excellent handling and decision making will stand them in good stead going in to the rest of the season. Their discipline however will be a worry; with three yellow cards in one match, it is clearly an area they will need to work on. But with at least six players still due to come back into the side, it looks to be a very promising season for the defending champions.
Scarlets: Gareth Owen; Liam Williams, Scott Williams, Steve Shingler, Kristian Phillips; Rhys Priestland, Gareth Davies; Phil John; Ken Owens; Samson Lee, George Earle, Jo Snyman, Aaron Shingler, Josh Turnbull, 8 Rob McCusker (capt).
Replacements: Adam Warren for Scott. Williams (80), Jordan Williams for Kristian Phillips (63), Rhodri Williams for Gareth Davies (67), Ron Evans for John (53), Emyr Phillips for Owens (70), Jacobie Adriaanse for Lee (70), Jake Ball for Synman (67), Craig Price for Aaron Shingler (70).
Sin-bin: G Owen (79).
Leinster: Dave Kearney; Darragh Fanning, Brendan Macken., Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Tom Denton, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings (capt), Jordi Murphy.
Replacements: Noel Reid for D’Arcy (77), Darren Hudson for Fitzgerald (44), Isaac Boss for Reddan (67), Jack O’Connell for McGrath (78), Aaron Dundon for Cronin (70), Mike Ross for Moore (36), Mike McCarthy for Denton (41), Dominic Ryan for Jennings (78).
Sin-bin: Kearney (7), Hudson (49), McGrath (78).