Three talking points from the 2018 Guinness Pro14 final between Leinster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium
Guinness Pro14 final: Leinster 40-32 Scarlets
Leinster completed their first European Cup and domestic league double with a 40-32 win over Scarlets in the Guinness Pro14 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
James Lowe’s try just before half-time gave Leinster the advantage over the defending champions and scores from Sean Cronin and Jordan Larmour in the third quarter put the game beyond Scarlets’ reach, even though they crossed for three tries of their own in the final 16 minutes.
It means Leinster become the first team from outside of England and France to lift both the European Cup and their domestic league trophy in the same season.
Is this the best Leinster team ever?
“A year like no other” is how former Leinster and Ireland wing Shane Horgan described this season, and he could well have been talking about Irish rugby as a whole as well as Leinster in particular.
Six Nations Grand Slam, European Champions Cup, Guinness Pro14 – there is no shortage of rugby silverware in Ireland this season and Joe Schmidt’s team will head to Australia in confident mood.
So just how good is this Leinster team? They have won the European Cup before – in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – but have never backed that up with the league title. Rob Kearney admitted afterwards that in the past the team had struggled to get themselves right emotionally for the league final after a Euro triumph.
There was no struggle this time and it’s clear the fact it was captain Isa Nacewa’s final game – he lasted only 18 minutes before being substituted because of injury – was a huge motivator for the squad.
Players wanted to pay tribute to the man who first played for the province a decade ago. Kearney describes him as an “even better person than a player” while Johnny Sexton says “he’s arguably our greatest ever player”.
They gave Nacewa a fitting send-off and made him lift the trophy on his own (he prefers to share the honour!), but the exciting thing about this Leinster squad is how young so many of them are.
There’s Jordan Larmour on the wing, Tadhg Furlong at tighthead and James Ryan, who has yet to lose a game for Leinster or Ireland, in the second row. As another youngster, flanker Dan Leavy, says, “the sky’s the limit” in terms of what this team can achieve.
It may be too early to class them as better than the back-to-back European champion side of 2011-12, when Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D’Arcy wore the blue shirt, but if Leinster back these titles up next season they will have a strong case.
And given the consistency of their performances and depth of their talent – they used more than 50 players in this league campaign – it is hard to bet against them lifting more silverware in 2019.
A Johnny Sexton masterclass
Kicks, hits, flicks – Johnny Sexton produced it all yesterday and the fly-half was deservedly named Man of the Match.
He is such a talisman for Leinster and Ireland, central to their success with his astute game management, high skill level and pure desire to achieve. He is the one who sets the standards for his teams.
Against Scarlets, he continually peppered Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny with high balls, putting them under pressure and looking to find the space behind the defensive line. It was an effective strategy.
He kicked superbly for the corners from penalties too, one such kick providing the position for Sean Cronin to score from a five-metre lineout, and was resolute in defence.
His distribution game is top drawer and the flick pass to James Lowe as he ran a straight line five metres out to create a try for the wing was sublime.
If Leinster are to win more silverware next season and Ireland are to challenge for the World Cup in 2019, they need Sexton to continue to produce quality performances like this.
The talents of Johnny McNicholl
When he injured his shoulder back in February it looked like Johnny McNicholl’s season was over, but he returned to play a significant role in both the semi-final and final for Scarlets.
His attacking nous came to the fore against Glasgow when he played at full-back and he was just as dangerous on the wing against Leinster, moving to accommodate the return of Leigh Halfpenny at 15.
It will be scant consolation but to score a hat-trick in a final is a significant achievement and he provided the cutting edge the Scarlets needed.
His first try came from a simple pick-and-go for the line from less than a metre out after Gareth Davies was just short, but McNicholl was the one who had sparked that attack with his first touch of the ball.
His second was an incredible finish in the corner when he dived for the line and touched the ball down despite the tackle of Garry Ringrose. The third came in the final minute when he linked with Scott Williams on the wing.
It may have been too little too late in terms of the scoreboard but given the New Zealand-born wing’s talents it’s little surprise people are already considering the possibility of him representing Wales when he qualifies late next year.
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