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Leinster Rugby vs Scarlets
Champions Cup Semi-final
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Saturday, 21st April 2018, 15:30

TV: Live on Sky Sports

Let's hope it is just a lucky omen.

Before Leinster played Saracens in the quarter-final they warmed up with their worst performance of the season away to Ospreys. Last week they warmed up to play Scarlets in the semi-final with an even worse performance. Credit to Benetton, we said they were no longer anyone's mugs and they thoroughly deserved their win. They were smart, physical and well organised in defence but when they had the chance they played some good rugby too. Leinster's performance was marked by arrogance and complacency as they just seemed to think they had to turn up to win. Leinster's starting team is vastly different to the one that started last weekend but it's a great lesson to the squad to not take anything for granted.

The side they face though will be even more changed as the Scarlets basically conceded their match against Edinburgh last week by naming a total second-string squad. They duly got tonked 52-14 but they probably figured they weren't going to catch Leinster at the top of the conference anyway and decided to completely rest their main men. But it's pretty remarkable that the Scarlets have reached this stage at all considering the start they made to their pool.

They lost away to Toulon and at home to Bath in their first two matches and were trailing by seven points with ten minutes to go at home to Benetton in their next game. But they pulled it out of the fire with two late tries and then won with a bonus point in the return fixture. This gave them a chance but they still had it all to do but they went to the Recreation ground on a Friday night and simply destroyed Bath playing a style of rugby that's a joy to watch. They followed that up with another fine win the following week at home to Toulon and they now had a home quarter-final.

In that match they took on La Rochelle who had also played some dazzling rugby in the early rounds. It wasn't the Harlem Globetrotters stuff this time though from Scarlets, instead they ground out a hard-fought win through their pack and the superb place-kicking of Leigh Halfpenny. The bookies have made Leinster 5-1 on favourites to win but this will be music to the Welshmen's ears. They'll remember how they were written off last season when they came to the RDS in the Pro14 semi-final and they duly ripped Leinster apart despite playing the entire second half with 14 men. Despite that win, they were written off again in the final in the Aviva and they duly thrashed Munster by an even bigger margin.

It's interesting when you compare the teams from last season's semi-final though. Seven of the Scarlets pack that started that Friday evening start again tomorrow with the only difference being David Bulbring starting ahead of Lewis Rawlins in the second row. By complete contrast only Tadgh Furlong starts again from the Leinster pack that night. It's fair to say Leinster have upgraded in most positions, particularly in the second row where it's almost a shock to recall both Hayden Triggs and Ross Molony were chosen to start that night ahead of Devin Toner.

Leinster will look to dominate the Scarlets up front, the same way the Ireland pack did to the Welsh pack in the Six Nations. Four players from each pack started that game but crucially the Welsh didn't have James Davies, John Barclay and Tadgh Beirne in their team. Davies and Barclay are renowned breakdown experts but Beirne has been simply incredible in this facet of the game, especially considering he's primarily a second row.

Leinster knew they had to deal with his threat at the home match in the RDS this season and they failed miserably. It was going to be different in the away game, Scott Fardy would sort him out, but again Beirne was dominant and his breakdown penalty earned them a draw with the final kick of the game. So between the coaches and the players they have to figure out a way to negate him or it will be another long day at the office.

Beirne starts in the second row alongside Bulbring in a Scarlets team that shows thirteen changes from last week. Aaron Shingler comes back to form a back row with Davies and Barclay. Skipper Ken Owens leads the current Welsh front row of himself, Rob Evans and Samson Lee.

Injuries in the back three to the likes of Paul Asquith, Johnny McNicholl and Tom Prydie means that Rhys Patchell is needed at full back so the spiky Gareth Davies and Dan Jones are the halves and Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams form a big but skillful centre pairing. Leigh Halfpenny switches to the right wing to accommodate Patchell with Steff Evans rounding out the team on the left wing.

For Leinster the talk all week was about Luke McGrath's ankle and the knock-on effect that his absence would have on James Lowe's chances of starting. McGrath hasn't made it so Jamison Gibson-Park retains his place at scrum-half. He'll want to improve on his showing from the Benetton match but this week at least he'll have Johnny Sexton running the show with him. In a rather bizarre move Sexton is also named captain despite Isa Nacewa starting as well.

There is an unexpected boost with the news that Robbie Henshaw is fit again so he partners up with Garry Ringrose in the centre. With James Lowe squeezed out by the selection of fellow Antipodeans Gibson-Park and Scott Fardy the now former skipper Isa Nacewa is moved to the wing where he forms an experienced but deathly slow back three with Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney. Considering how badly Nacewa was exposed on the wing in last season's semi-final, the Scarlets will be targeting him mercilessly.

The Leinster pack which started against Saracens is chosen again so that means the fit again Jack Conan is named on the bench along with Jordan Larmour who along with Joey Carbery could bring some pace into the equation late into the game.

The changes Leinster have had to make will cause some doubts in their minds but at the same time the home pack know they can take this lot if they're on the top of their game. It could be a very nervy encounter but hopefully Leinster have enough to get to Bilbao.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney 15 Rhys Patchell
Fergus McFadden 14 Leigh Halfpenny
Garry Ringrose 13 Scott Williams
Robbie Henshaw 12 Hadleigh Parkes
Isa Nacewa 11 Steff Evans
Johnny Sexton (C) 10 Dan Jones
Jamison Gibson-Park 9 Gareth Davies

Cian Healy 1 Rob Evans
Sean Cronin
2 Ken Owens (C)
Tadhg Furlong 3 Samson Lee
Devin Toner
4 Tadhg Beirne
James Ryan 5 David Bulbring
Scott Fardy 6 Aaron Shingler
Dan Leavy 7 James Davies
Jordi Murphy 8 John Barclay

Replacements James Tracy 16 Ryan Elias
Jack McGrath 17 Dylan Evans
Andrew Porter 18 Werner Kruger
Ross Molony 19 Lewis Rawlins
Jack Conan 20
Steve Cummins
Nick McCarthy 21 Aled Davies
Joey Carbery 22 Steff Hughes
Jordan Larmour 23 Will Boyde

Not Considered
due to Injury
Tom Daly,
Josh van der Flier,
Caelan Doris,
Cathal Marsh,
Will Connors,
Dave Kearney,
Luke McGrath,
Sean O'Brien,
Rhys Ruddock

Jonathan Davies,
Jake Ball,
Tom Price,
Tom Prydie,
Johnny McNicholl,
Paul Asquith
Officials Referee: Romain Poite (France),
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Pierre Brousset (France),
TMO Philippe Bonhoure (France),
Citing Commissioner: Shaun Gallagher (England)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2018-04-20