Terrific Scarlets set the bar high with seven-try blitz
WHAT was meant to be a baptism of fire ended up with Simon Easterby basking in the glow of a red-hot performance to begin his new coaching era at Parc y Scarlets.
Of course, Easterby can expect a far different Leinster side to return to Llanelli in seven weeks' time for Heineken Cup hostilities.
But regardless of the strength, or lack of it, in the ranks of the European champions — 18 players were absent because of Ireland orders and injury — this was still an eye-catching opening from the West Walians.
"If somebody had given us that scoreline before the game, scoring seven tries and only conceding a couple against Leinster, we would certainly have taken that," said Easterby afterwards.
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"We have struggled against Leinster and Munster over the past few seasons — I don't know if it is a mental block or what — but we showed tonight we can mix it with them.
"But we have to be realistic as well.
"It is about backing this performance up now. We are only one game in against an under-strength Leinster team, and there is a long way to go this season."
Easterby's "feet on the ground" mantra is a sensible one, but Scarlets fans will be hugely encouraged by what they witnessed on Saturday evening.
They are no strangers to great length-of-the-field tries and Andy Fenby's bonus-point effort after scorching contributions from man of the match Liam Williams and Aaron Shingler is already a contender for the RaboDirect awards night.
But the sight of the home forwards, led impressively by Rob McCusker, consistently punching their way over the gainline was as significant as anything on show.
Much has been made of the Scarlets' front-five inadequacies at the highest level, and the loss of five players from last season plus chief ball-carrier Ben Morgan had left a serious rebuilding task for Easterby and his new forwards coach Danny Wilson.
They have turned to the southern hemisphere for the solution, and one of those to arrive from the Highveld, former Cheetahs lock George Earle, already looks an astute acquisition.
Earle didn't do anything spectacular, but he took his restarts, carried powerfully, hit rucks and offered the Scarlets the kind of grunt they have been desperately seeking in recent times.
It was all the more impressive because Earle had dislocated his thumb during training on Thursday and had been a doubt up until the morning of the match.
"He strapped it up and dug in for 55 minutes. George wasn't prepared to not play, which was great to see and that kind of attitude is rubbing off on the players," added Easterby.
Alongside Earle, Richard Kelly, whose arrival from the Ospreys has slipped under the radar, didn't look out of place on the regional stage, while Tongan powerhouse Sione Timani added further carrying options when he came on.
And it meant half-backs Tavis Knoyle and Aled Thomas were able to enjoy the luxury of front-foot ball to deliver to the likes of George North and Scott and Liam Williams, who all got on the scoresheet.
Until Saturday, you had to go back to February 2011 to find North's last try in Scarlets colours — a record that contrasts sharply with his prolific strike rate in international rugby — while centre Scott Williams also produced an impressive hour before making way for Wales colleague Jonathan Davies.
The undoubted star of the night, though, was Liam Williams, who is becoming a firm crowd favourite down west.
Almost recklessly brave at times, Williams hurled himself into everything; catching his own high kicks, taking crash balls, diving at the feet of attackers and helping himself to one try and providing an assist for another.
With the Wales management watching on, if he can continue this form, another cap beckons in the autumn.
It was Williams's try — coming after Scott Williams had opened the Scarlets account — that allowed the Scarlets to go in 14-6 ahead at the break.
North's first, three minutes after the restart, extended the advantage before Fenby's spectacular score claimed the bonus point with less than an hour played.
Liam Williams had picked up a hack through in the shadow of his posts and sped away from Leinster's tiring defence.
Shingler then added a remarkable injection of pace, showing great speed off the mark to burst clear before off-loading to Knoyle who found his wing out wide.
Towering lock Devin Toner stretched over for Leinster on 61 minutes, but their respite was short-lived as replacement No. 8 Kieran Murphy did likewise for the Scarlets' fifth before North and Fenby claimed their second tries of the match in the closing stages.
A late converted score from fly-half Ian Madigan denied the Scarlets top spot in the league table, but this was still a big statement from a side that has often failed to deliver on early promise.
"We were bullied around the field, it was difficult to retain the ball for long periods and if we did turn it over they made it count. They are a very good side," was the verdict of Leinster's coach Joe Schmidt.
"And as if the players that started weren't doing enough damage they had the likes of Jonathan Davies and Rhys Priestland coming off the bench, which is testament to the quality of the Scarlets squad.
"They are going to be a threat this season.
"I thought they were dangerous last year. I watched them at home in Europe against Northampton and Munster and I felt they were the authors of their own downfall.
"They always create opportunities and if they finish those opportunities they are a real handful."
Glasgow provide the next test for Easterby's side on Friday night.
They will head north with a spring in their step.