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Leinster Rugby vs Ospreys
RaboDirect Pro12 Final
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Sunday, 27th May 2012, 16:00

Television: Live: RTE2, TG4, S4C

Having watched their team become Heineken Cup Champions for the third time in four years, Leinster fans are in dreamland at the moment. Back in December 2007, when Leinster had just been knocked out of the pool stages by Edinburgh at Murrayfield after a truly awful display, talk of winning one trophy seemed delusional, let alone three less than five years later. Back then the likes of Michael Cheika, Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll were utterly sick of the tag of the boys who played pretty rugby but always bottled it when it really mattered.

They resolved that Leinster had to toughen up and adapt a mentality where winning came first. By the end of that season Leinster were Magners League champions on the back of a gritty forward effort led by the likes of Cullen, Ollie Le Roux and Bernard Jackman. By the end of the following season, they were Heineken Cup champions and this victory was based on an incredible defence created by Kurt McQuilkin.

These victories were gratefully accepted but the next step was not just winning but winning playing traditional attacking Leinster rugby. Queue Joe Schmidt. After an inauspicious start, he quickly built on the solid foundations of the Cheika era, retaining the tough pack and the iron defence but introducing a fast-paced, high-skilled offloading game that was easy on the eye but also very successful.

It culminated last weekend in Leinster thrashing Ulster 42-14, breaking records for the highest winning margin and the most tries scored in a final. In truth, Schmidt and the Leinster players were the first to point out that the final two tries made it look more of a hammering than it really was, but once Cian Healy had scored the second try of the match there was only going to be one winner. Ulster deserve credit for the brave way they tried to take the game to Leinster and they played a big part in a very entertaining match as did their terrific fans on a wonderful day for Irish rugby. But it was apparent that Leinster always had another gear to go to and it was noticeable that they always responded almost straight away every time Ulster scored.

After the match the players celebrated but it was remarkable how quickly the focus switched to this week's match against the Ospreys. Last season Leinster won in Cardiff but then lost against Munster the following week and this left a sour taste in the mouth of the Leinster team and management. They competed gamely in that match in Thomond Park but it was clear that fatigue set in around the sixty minute mark and Munster took a decisive lead at that stage.

Such is the Leinster squad's determination to do the double this season, it was reported that as many as two-thirds of the squad turned up voluntarily to do some training the day after the Heineken Cup final. As an organisation, Leinster also took the decision to not have a homecoming celebration at the RDS on Sunday. It wouldn't have been good for the pitch that's true, but also it's a statement of intent that Leinster will do their partying only if and when they complete the double this Sunday.

They have a seriously tough game ahead of them though if they want to achieve that. Of all the teams in the league, the Ospreys are the last team they'd want to face in the final. They're the one team who have no fear of coming to the RDS, having famously been party-poopers when they ruined Cheika's farewell in the 2010 league final. They were deserved winners that day and this season they are the only team that Leinster haven't beaten in 32 games. Leinster have only lost three times all season and twice it was to the Ospreys.

A callow Leinster side were hammered 27-3 over in the Liberty in the first match of the season. They had revenge on their minds in the return match in March in the RDS and with Brian O'Driscoll back and Brad Thorn making his first start, a capacity crowd expected a crushing win, especially when Leinster led 19-6 early in the second half. Yet it was noticeable in the Ospreys' body language that even at that point they never panicked, or stopped believing in themselves.

They slowly but surely started building their way back into the game slowing Leinster down at the breakdown and counter-attacking with menace and accuracy. Leinster didn't have much luck with a disallowed try that should have been given by the TMO and a last minute Dan Biggar conversion that shouldn't have been. However on the whole they were deserved winners and the win took their record over Leinster to four wins in their last five meetings. And even that one win in the sequence, a dour 15-10 win in January 2011, they kept a largely full-strength Leinster team from crossing the try-line.

Their aggressive rush defence has always caused Leinster problems coupled with excellent breakdown work from the likes of Justin Tipuric and Ryan Jones. That win in March seemed to galvanise the Ospreys. They'd had a typically inconsistent season up until then with another disappointing Heineken Cup campaign. At one point they looked to be struggling to make the top four at all, especially with their coaches leaving mid-season and several players announcing their departure at the end of the season, including Tommy Bowe, Paul James and Huw Bennett.

Yet rather than fall apart like Cardiff, adversity seems to have pulled them together instead and they won their final four matches after beating Leinster to secure a home semi-final against Munster. Munster limped into that game after a season cursed by injury but the Ospreys were still hugely impressive in the way they utterly dismantled them to win 45-10. Their under-rated full back Richard Fussell was superb in that match, creating the match-winning try just before half-time with a smart counter-attack from his own half when many players would have opted for booting the ball to the safety of touch.

He's named again at full back in an Ospreys team that shows just one change from the team that started the semi-final. That change is at scrum-half where Rhys Webb is surprisingly picked ahead of Samoan international Kahn Fotuali'i. Fotuali'i was superb in the semi-final and his abrasive style of play caused Leinster problems in game in the RDS but coach Steve Tandy has gone for the quicker Webb, who in truth has also been in fine form this season.

The South African born blond bomber Hanno Dirksen is on the right wing and he's been a revelation this season. On the left wing however, is a player who needs no introduction. Shane Williams seems to have been retiring for ever at this stage but this is definitely his final game for the Ospreys at least and one of the game's great finishers looks in as good nick as ever and he'll want to go out on a bang.

They've got two big, powerful centres in Andrew Bishop and Ashley Beck and out-half Dan Biggar has recovered from a spell in the doldrums to return to his best form recently. He's always had a strong kicking game but he's added a strong attacking dimension to it too and he makes up a potent half-back partnership with Webb.

In the game in March, Leinster lost both their tightheads and the impressive Ospreys scrum showed no mercy. They'll be looking to attack Leinster there again and have named a scary-looking front row in Welsh internationals Paul James, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones. Ian Evans and their skipper Alun Wyn Jones are a massively experienced pairing in the second row and Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric and Joe Bearman make up a very good back row combination. Overall it's a big, physical team that will relish the collisions.

For Leinster they've made four changes, all in the pack, from the team that started the Heineken Cup final. One is injury-enforced as Sean O'Brien is out with a knee injury so Shane Jennings comes in as a direct replacement at openside. It's a deserved start for Jennings but it's a shame that O'Brien is out as he was in blistering form last week. The other three changes come in the front five as Heinke van der Merwe, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner all come in.

This is good squad management as all three played a huge part in getting Leinster to the final playing in a lot of games when the internationals were away. Cian Healy is struggling with a knock and so is bracketed on the bench with Jack McGrath but Brad Thorn and Richardt Strauss are there along with Dominic Ryan who'll be desperate to get a taste of the action. The backline is unchanged as Isaac Boss still hasn't recovered from injury and Eoin Reddan continues at scrum-half with young John Cooney on the bench. You have to feel for Boss though, missing both finals after playing such a vital role in Leinster's success this season.

Despite the injuries it's still a very strong Leinster side and they'll be desperate to win to make history by becoming the first Irish team to do the double. Even more than that, they'll be desperate to win because the league is a victory that the entire squad, including the academy guys, can really celebrate as 49 players have played a part at some stage. The young guys and the fringe squad players were the ones keeping things going when the internationals were away with Ireland for most of the season. The big names will feel they've let these guys down if they let it go at the last minute.

It's going to be a really tough match and Leinster will have to scrap for their lives against an excellent Ospreys team that really fancy themselves. However Leinster have enough motivation to really bring their A game and close out what's been their best ever season with a win that will earn their first league title in four seasons.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Ospreys
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Richard Fussell
Fergus McFadden
14 Hanno Dirksen
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Andrew Bishop
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Ashley Beck
Isa Nacewa 11 Shane Williams
Jonathan Sexton
10 Dan Biggar
Eoin Reddan
9 Rhys Webb

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Paul James
Sean Cronin 2 Richard Hibbard
Mike Ross
3 Adam Jones
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Alun Wyn Jones (C)
Devin Toner 5 Ian Evans
Kevin McLaughlin
6 Ryan Jones
Shane Jennings 7 Justin Tipuric
Jamie Heaslip
8 Joe Bearman

Replacements Richardt Strauss 16 Scott Baldwin
Cian Healy / Jack McGrath
17 Ryan Bevington
Nathan White
18 Aaron Jarvis
Brad Thorn 19 James King
Dominic Ryan
20 Tom Smith
Isaac Boss 21 Kahn Fotuali'i
Ian Madigan 22 Matthew Morgan
Dave Kearney
23 Tom Isaacs

Not Considered
due to Injury
Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
Eoin O'Malley,
Rhys Ruddock,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Sean O'Brien,
Isaac Boss

Huw Bennett,
Cai Griffiths,
Gareth Owen,
Nikki Walker,
Tommy Bowe,
Will Price,
Ben John
Officials Referee: Romain Poite (FFR),
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (IRFU), Neil Paterson (SRU),
TMO: Giulio de Santis (FIR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-05-26

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