Heineken dream looks in ruins as champs are just too clinical
THEY threatened to down Leinster and keep their European dreams alive but, just two weekends into the Heineken Cup, the Scarlets have already admitted their campaign lies in tatters.
The Scarlets could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. When they last faced the reigning European champions in this competition, they suffered back-to-back defeats against the Irish province in 2009.
Even having won their first two matches of the tournament that season, those losses proved fatal for the Scarlets' European campaign, and it seems Saturday's 20-13 reverse to Leinster could be similarly damaging.
With just one point from their opening two games, Simon Easterby's side face an almighty task in trying to qualify for the knockout stages.
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The head coach had described this match as one his side could not afford to lose and, after the event, he admitted the outlook was bleak.
"We couldn't afford to lose it and we lost it. We're out of the group," said Easterby.
"It's difficult. Leinster have put themselves in the driving seat with two wins from two but we're still able to affect the group."
Despite being 14-0 down early in the second half, there was a point when the Scarlets looked like overhauling their illustrious rivals.
Gareth Maule's brilliant solo try and two kicks from Rhys Priestland cut the lead to 14-10 and roused the Parc y Scarlets crowd into a frenzied sense of hope.
But just three minutes after Priestland's conversion had prompted huge roars, the hosts' optimism had been pricked by Jonny Sexton's third penalty.
It was a telling strike from the Ireland fly-half, typical of the way in which Leinster ruthlessly pounced on any sign of Scarlets weakness.
The Irish province may not have been at the absolute peak of their fearsome powers, but they smothered the home side at the merest sign of a revival.
"We couldn't quite back up the positive stuff we were doing," said Easterby.
"We scored but let them score instead of backing up the positives. That's frustrating because you can't build any momentum in the game."
That inability to capitalise on their periods of pressure was the main cause of consternation for the Scarlets.
As well as failing to push on after Maule's 54th-minute try, Easterby's men had also squandered opportunities to score in the first half.
Trailing 11-0 after an explosive start from Leinster, the Scarlets advanced upfield thanks to a combination of forward industry and Priestland's intelligent kicking from hand.
A driving maul midway through the first period took them within inches of the Leinster try line, but the home side could not break through the imposing wall of blue which stood in their way.
"We had a lot of errors in our game and when you're playing a side like Leinster you've got to keep your error count low and get a lot of things right — we didn't quite do that," Easterby added.
By that point Leinster had already built a strong lead. Sexton punished the Scarlets' indiscipline with two penalties and he also created his side's only try of the match.
In the 11th minute, Sexton arched a nicely-weighted crossfield kick to winger Isa Nacewa, the ball floating beyond a helpless George North.
The giant Wales wing tried to make amends by wrestling the airborne Nacewa, but the Fijian was still able to ground the ball.
Sexton missed his conversion, but the three-time Heineken Cup winners had already done some damage.
Leinster were somewhat disjointed in their opening 9-6 win over Exeter, but began this game with the authority expected from the reigning champions.
Quicker to the breakdown, more numerous in their support of attacking team-mates, Leinster swarmed the Scarlets in their own territory.
The visitors did not have to try anything otherworldly — they just did the simple things brilliantly. Like the All Blacks, it is what they do best.
The Scarlets struggled to compete with Leinster's brutish physicality, with Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings particularly destructive.
One player who relished this muscular challenge was George Earle. The South African made several crunching tackles, sending opponents backwards with some momentum-shifting hits, but one collision too many meant he was replaced at half-time by Argentinian debutant Tomas Vallejos.
The Scarlets' other South African lock, Joe Snyman, also had to leave the field, and Easterby felt the disruption to his pack undermined the West Walians' hopes of a comeback.
It certainly affected the hosts' scrum. Leinster's second-half introduction of front-row heavyweights Richardt Strauss and Heinke van der Merwe saw them gain crushing superiority at the set-piece.
Ireland prop Mike Ross was named the official man of the match and having seen the Scarlets' pack driven backwards on more than one occasion, it was difficult to argue with that choice.
It was a morale-sapping sight for the Llanelli region, who conceded two penalties from scrums.
The Scarlets' pack is certainly a tougher unit this season, but Leinster were irresistibly physical at times.
Whenever the hosts did manage to build their backline a steady attacking platform, they looked threatening.
Sexton had stretched Leinster's lead to 14-0 with a fabulous drop-goal from almost 50 metres after four minutes of the second half, but the Scarlets were soon back in contention. And in some style.
From a line-out ten metres out from the Leinster 22, Priestland swept the ball to Maule and, faced with the legendary figure of Brian O'Driscoll, the centre produced a moment of brilliance.
Maule stood up O'Driscoll, stepped outside his opposite number and sprinted clear. He then threw a dummy which fooled full-back Ian Madigan and scorched over in the corner.
Priestland converted and Parc y Scarlets swelled with noise as it seemed the home side were about to pull their Heineken Cup hopes from the fire.
But three minutes later Sexton doused that anticipation with another penalty. Priestland responded with a three-pointer of his own, but again his opposite number restored Leinster's seven-point lead.
It rather summed up the match. While Leinster have a fourth Heineken Cup in their sights, the Scarlets require a minor miracle to prolong their stay in the competition.