Leinster edge Scarlets in absence of Irish and Welsh stars

Scott Fardy on his way to scoring a try. Pic: INPHO/Byran Keane

By Brendan O’BrienLeinster 20 Scarlets 13: Leinster landed a significant blow in the scramble for Guinness PRO14 play-off places on Saturday afternoon with a hard-earned and at times entertaining victory against the 2017 league champions in Ballsbridge.

Neck and neck at the top of Conference B before kick-off, the Irish province now commands a three-point lead over their rivals with six rounds remaining.

The gap tonight would have stood at four but for an injury-time penalty conversion from Scarlets’ ten Dan Jones.

It is a kick that may yet be laced with importance later in the campaign.

A meeting between last year’s winners and, arguably, the biggest club in the competition, the question is why what should be one of the league’s billboard fixtures was played slap bang in the middle of the Six Nations.

International duties resulted inevitably in the absence of a slew of talent with Leinster making do without a dozen of Joe Schmidt’s players and the visitors appearing in town minus eleven of those kept under Warren Gatland’s watchful eye on this rest week.

It is a mind-boggling state of affairs for a league that is constantly having to answer accusations that it lags behind its French and English counterparts and one exacerbated by the fact these two go at it again in a fortnight at Parc Y Scarlets.

None of that takes into account the men missing thanks to injury. That is a list that includes Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw, Josh van der Flier and, on the Scarlets side, Jonathan Davies.

Jordi Murphy made his 100th appearance for Leinster. Pic: INPHO/Byran Keane

Given the circumstances, then, those on view did a decent job of entertaining a crowd of just over 14,000 on a mild and sometimes sunny Dublin afternoon as two sides wedded to the idea, and the worth, of attractive attacking rugby did their thing.

Scarlets struck first blood eleven minutes in with full-back Johnny McNicholl touching down at the end of a superb move that swayed from left to right and back again and one with Munster-bound Tadhg Beirne popping up on the wing for a critical carry.

McNicholl’s input came at a price though with the Kiwi back injuring his shoulder in the act of touching down and, just like Robbie Henshaw for Ireland against Italy last week, making for the casualty station straight after.

Leinster’s Rory O’Loughlin joined him before long having shipped a heavy tackle from Steff Hughes that left him poleaxed on the turf and then visibly shaken once he regained his feet. He’s not the first Leinster midfielder to come a cropper this season.

Ciaran Frawley took his place for a senior debut. The young Skerries man acquitted himself more than well but it was James Lowe, the New Zealand wing sensation, who again stole the show and the game with it from there on in.

Lowe claimed his side’s first try on 20 minutes, going over down the left touchline on the back of a Leinster maul and a swift wraparound move involving Frawley and some neat hands from Adam Byrne.

Fifteen minutes later and that man Lowe was at it again, burrowing over from less than a metre out after Scott Fardy had stolen a lineout in the Scarlets 22 and, after Leinster had been turned over, blocking down the attempted relieving kick.

Up 10-7 at the break, Leinster stretched that within 32 minutes of the restart. Lowe was the creator this time, taking a pass from Jordan Larmour, shunting Corey Baldwin away and then freeing scrum-half Luke McGrath to sprint free from the halfway line.

Frawley succeeded where Ross Byrne had failed with his two first-half conversion attempts by adding the two points from underneath the main grandstand but that 17-7 lead was compromised by a Dan Jones penalty close to the hour.

The excitement of the first 45 minutes had long dissipated by now as the game fell flat. The stakes stayed the same though and, while a Frawley penalty left Leinster ten ahead again, there was still time for Jones to bring that back to seven again.

It was a commendable effort from the Welsh side who had to play the last ten minutes with 14 men after winger Tom Prydie limped off just a minute after head coach Wayne Pivac had emptied the last of his bench.

Leinster: J Larmour; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath; E Byrne, S Cronin, M Bent; R Molony, S Fardy; Josh Murphy, Jordi Murphy, M Deegan.

Replacements: C Frawley for O’Loughlin (14); N McCarthy for McGrath (50); R Strauss for Cronin and P Dooley for E Byrne (both 56); I Nagle for Josh Murphy (65); B Daly for R Byrne (71); O Heffernan for Bent and W Connors for Jordi Murphy (both 75).

Scarlets: J McNicholl; T Prydie, P Asquith, S Hughes, I Nicholas; D Jones, J Evans; D Evans, R Elias, W Kruger; S Cummins, D Bulbring; T Beirne, J Davies, J Macleod.

Replacements: C Baldwin for McNicholl (11); D Smith for J Evans (50); P Price for D Evans (58); L Rawlins for Cummins (58); T Williams for Hughes (63); E Phillips for Elias, S Gardiner for Kruger and W Boyde for Macleod (all 69).

Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).

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