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Peter Jackson: Scarlets gunning for Leinster revenge in semi-final

Since Leinster engulfed them in a blue blizzard of tries during their last appearance in Dublin two months ago, the Scarlets have proved none the worse for the experience.

They return to the scene of their beating at the RDS for the first of the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals on May 19, buoyed by a rising tide of victories.

In the five matches since that forgettable Friday night in early March, the Scarlets have won more points and created more tries than any of the three other title contenders.

They have taken 24 out of a maximum 25 at the rate of exactly one try for every point. Munster over the same period have collected 23 points and 22 tries, Leinster 19 points (15 tries) and Ospreys ten points (ten tries).

The collective quality of the Guinness PRO12’s top four teams can be gauged from their grand total of 15 British & Irish Lions bound for New Zealand at the end of the month.

Irrespective of whether the final at the Aviva Stadium on May 27 is an all-Irish affair or, conceivably, an all-Welsh one, the cast will feature at least six Lions.

Leinster have five (Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw), Ospreys four (Dan Biggar, Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb), Munster three (Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray) and Scarlets three (Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams).

Six other Lions are to be found in the teams finishing fifth, sixth and seventh. Ulster have three (Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Jared Payne), the Warriors two (Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour) and the Blues one, Sam Warburton, captaining the Lions on successive tours, a distinction achieved by only one other player, Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001.

Since the advent of play-offs eight seasons ago, the PRO12 final has always featured the teams finishing the regular campaign in first and second place.

Nobody qualifying from third or fourth place has survived an away semi-final, at least not yet.

There is, as they say, a first time for everything and with the Scarlets riding the crest of a wave, Munster have not exactly been complaining at being able to give the West Walians a wide berth as due reward for their No. 1 seeding.

While they took full advantage of Leinster’s loss in Belfast by hitting Connacht for 50, Scarlets were rattling up 40 at the expense of the Ospreys and ensuring the latter go to Thomond Park for the second semi-final on May 20.

Instead of returning as the only team to have won in Limerick all season, Scarlets are now concentrating on their crack at an even more formidable home record.

Leinster have beaten all-comers to Dublin this season, their victims stretching beyond the PRO12 to include Wasps, Castres, Montpellier and Northampton, dispatched before Christmas by the small matter of 60-13.

The scoreline at the back of Scarlets’ minds is almost as one-sided – 45-9. The figures on the RDS scoreboard reflected Leinster’s superiority on the first Friday of March, a mere eight days after the Welsh region had produced arguably the comeback of the PRO12 season to overhaul Munster at Thomond 30-21.

In the course of shipping seven tries at the RDS without reply the following week, it can be said in Scarlets’ defence that they were minus their substantial Six Nations contingent.

But then Leinster were minus theirs, including the five aforementioned Lions, not that anyone would have noticed.

Two of those who remember that night for very different reasons found themselves on stage together at the Guinness PRO12 annual awards night – Leinster’s Joey Carbery as the young player of the season, Scarlets’ hooker Ken Owens as one of two Lions, alongside Warriors’ wing Tommy Seymour, to make the PRO12 Dream Team.

Owens, outstanding for Wales all season, referenced the Leinster landslide the week before Wales surprised Ireland in Cardiff, making it clear the Scarlets would not be lacking in the motivational department.

“We have been playing some great stuff since then,” he said.  “We are quietly confident that if we get things right, we will put up a good show.”

Whether that show is good enough to end the incessant flow of home victories in play-off semi-finals remains to be seen.

Scarlets, therefore, must turn the tide of history if they are to win the trophy for the first time since 2004, so long ago that they were officially known as Llanelli Scarlets and the tournament as the Celtic League.

This will be only their second appearance in the play-offs. The first ended in Belfast four years ago against Ulster, who know better than most what it feels like to be counted out one game short of the final.

That had been their fate for each of the last three seasons before they finished this one a point behind Ospreys in fifth place.

Appearances in PRO12 play-off semi-finals:

Leinster 6 (Won 6, Lost 0)

Munster 5 (Won 2, Lost 3)

Ospreys  4 (Won 2, Lost 2)

Scarlets   1 (Won 0, Lost 1)

Other teams in play-offs:

Warriors 6 (Won 2, Lost 4)

Ulster       5 (Won 1, Lost 4)

Connacht 1 (Won 1, Lost 0)

Scarlets’ last play-off semi-final: May 10, 2013 v Ulster, away, Lost 17-28.

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.

Substitutes: C Black (for Court), R Herring (for Best), R Lutton (for Fitzpatrick), I Henderson (for Tuohy), M McComish (for Williams), P Marshall (for Jackson), P Nelson (for Olding), M Allen (for Trimble).

Tries: Bowe, Diack, Court.

Conversions: Pienaar 3.

Penalties: Pienaar 2.

Scarlets: L Williams; G North, J Davies, S Williams, A Fenby; O Williams, A Davies; P John, K Owens, S Lee; G Earle, A Snyman; A Shingler, R McCusker, capt., J Turnbull.

Substitutes: E Phillips (for Owens, 47 mins), R Jones (for John, 59), J Adriaanse (for Lee, 56), J Ball (for Earle, 56), S Timani (for Shingler, 45), G Davies (for A Davies, 45), A Thomas (for L Williams, 41), G Owen (for S Williams, 21).

Tries: G Davies, Timani.

Conversions: O Williams 2.

Penalty: O Williams.

 

Ospreys’ last play-off semi-final: May 23, 2015: v Munster, away, Lost 18-21.

Munster: F Jones; K Earls, R Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, E Guinazu, S Archer; D Ryan, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, capt., P Butler, CJ Stander.

Substitutes: R O’Mahony (for Zebo), JJ Hanrahan (for Keatley), D Williams (for Murray), J Ryan (for Kilcoyne), D Casey (for Guinazu), BJ Botha (for Archer).

Tries: Zebo, Hurley, Butler.

Penalties: Keatley 2.

Ospreys: D Evans; J Hassler, B John, J Matavesi, N Walker, D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, D Arhip; T Ardron, A-W Jones, capt.; D Lydiate, J Tipuric, D Baker.

Substitutes: J King (for Lydiate) J Spratt (for Biggar), M Thomas (for Baldwin), A Jarvis (for Arhip), R Thornton (for Ardron), S Parry (for Baldwin),S Davies (for Evans).

Tries: Webb, Hassler.

Conversion: Biggar.

Penalties: Biggar 2.

The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie

Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final