Leinster remain three points ahead of the Scarlets at the top of GUINNESS PRO14’s Conference B following an absorbing 10-all draw between the sides in wet and greasy conditions in Llanelli.
Ross Byrne’s 72nd-minute penalty, adding to Ed Byrne’s early second half try, had the province on the cusp on their first win at Parc y Scarlets since September 2013. They narrowly missed out on a clinching try via a Max Deegan charge-down, before man-of-the-match Tadhg Beirne won a last-gasp penalty which Dan Jones landed for a share of the spoils.
A fiercely-competitive first half had ended without a score and with Sean O’Brien, Leinster’s captain for the night, leaving the pitch after just 26 minutes having injured his left shoulder.
Ed Byrne burrowed over in the 45th minute and Scarlets centre Paul Asquith hit back past the hour mark, and while Ross Byrne was able to kick Leinster back in front at 10-7, the hosts’ effectiveness at the breakdown provided a sting in the tail for Leo Cullen’s men.
Leinster had most of the early territory but could not force a score, centre Rory O’Loughlin almost reaching Ross Byrne’s cross-field kick out to the right winger where Tom Williams covered the danger.
Opposing full-backs Williams and Dave Kearney popped up regularly in play, the former covering well in the back-field and Kearney, who broke through midfield in the opening minutes, putting in a busy shift.
Both sides were in position to score tries in the second quarter, a handling error let Leinster down as they pressed from a second successive maul in the 22.
The Scarlets did manage to cross the whitewash nearing the half-hour mark, some impressive handling sparking 15 phases in their first serious attack. They shifted it wide to Williams who stepped inside two defenders, yet Ross Molony and Ross Byrne did enough to force a knock-on in the act of scoring. TMO Neil Hennessy picked up the fumble on replays and Leinster avoided the concession of a try just a few minutes after O’Brien’s departure.
Max Deegan came on in O’Brien’s place and recent Six Nations debutant Jack Conan increased his influence as a ball carrier, with the closing stages of the first half also seeing the Leinster scrum get on top.
The visitors started the second period in very good fettle, the forwards winning turnover ball from a maul and Kearney’s kick chase and follow-up tackle – a double hit with O’Loughlin – driving the exposed Ioan Nicholas over his own try-line.
From the resulting scrum, the Leinster pack picked and drove their way over to the left of the posts where loosehead Byrne eventually grounded the ball on the line, with confirmation from the TMO. Ross Byrne converted for a 7-0 lead.
The Scarlets were frustrated in their attempts to respond. Out-half Dan Jones missed two kickable penalties, letting Scott Fardy and Ross Molony off the hook for offsides, and then 19 frantic phases close to the Leinster line saw the hosts repelled by some dogged defending.
Leinster’s defence continued to force knock-ons, but a gap opened up when the increasingly influential Beirne combined with scrum-half Jonathan Evans. Again, good hands from the defending champions shifted the ball wide and Australian centre Asquith took advantage of a missed tackle, building enough momentum to power over for a try which Jones did really well to convert from the right.
In a thrilling final quarter of an hour, Leinster regrouped well and used their bench to good effect. Barry Daly’s pace helped him regather the ball from a kick through and referee Nigel Owens spotted a ruck infringement on the right wing, allowing out-half Byrne to step up and plant a terrific penalty through the posts with eight minutes remaining.
The 10-7 lead could have been 17-7 just a few minutes later. Noel Reid’s clever run from deep and subsequent kick in the heavy rain turned the Scarlets back towards their own line. In a key moment in the game, Deegan blocked down an attempted clearance kick by Jones and McCarthy was perfectly placed to touch down for an apparent try.
However, referee Owens, having consulted with the TMO, ruled out the score as the ball had hit off the heel of Deegan, in an offside position, before McCarthy grounded it.
There was still time for the Scarlets to mount a big push for victory, as they looked to gain revenge for their recent 20-13 defeat at the RDS. They had won their previous 18 home games in the PRO14, but it seemed that it might be Leinster’s night when great covering by Ross Byrne forced a knock on from Tom Varndell as the pair lunged for a grubber kick right on the visitors’ whitewash.
However, there was one final twist and it went against the men in blue. Just as Leinster tried to wind down the clock by holding onto possession in their own 22, the long levers of Beirne managed to get a penalty decision from referee Owens and Jones held his nerve to land the levelling three-pointer.
Leinster returns to Guinness PRO14 action away to Ospreys on 24th March (KO 7.35pm) before facing Saracens in the Champions Cup Quarter-Final at Aviva Stadium on 1st April. Ticket sales for Leinster v Saracens are closing in on the 40,000 mark. Join the roar and get your tickets now.