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Connacht Rugby vs Leinter Rugby
Guinness Pro12 Grand Final
Murrayfield, Edinburgh,
Saturday, 28th May 2016, 17:30

Television: Live - TG4, Sky Sports 3

After what's been a pretty tough season for Irish rugby, it's great to finish on a positive note with a fantastic final in prospect between Leinster and Connacht at Murrayfield. Of course, everyone in Ireland outside Leinster (and probably one or two in it) will be shouting for Connacht and that's fair enough. If Ulster had beaten Leinster last week, we'd all be shouting for Connacht too. They were 50-1 to win the league at the start of the season so it would be a great romantic sports story if they go on to win. The comparisons with Leicester City winning the English Premiership are a little over the top, that would be more like Zebre winning the league. Connacht have been gradually improving under Pat Lam over the past few seasons and only narrowly missed out on Champions Cup qualification last season. However they've undoubtedly been the feelgood story of European rugby this season and they will take the pitch with the support of all the neutrals present.

Of course, Leinster won't give a toss about about any of that. They've got another trophy to win!

Since the play-off system was introduced to the Pro12, Leinster have made six of the seven finals. They lost the first three they contested (admittedly two came a week after Heineken Cup finals) but they've won the last two. Indeed since 2009 Leinster have made nine finals in all competitions and have won six of them. That experience and the ability to raise themselves for the big game could prove the difference against a side in their first final of any kind. Last week Leinster were under pressure against Ulster, their pride was hurt from the previous heavy defeat and the supporters and coaches demanded a response from the players. Indeed the players demanded a response from themselves and boy did they deliver as they tore into Ulster for the first 20 minutes to take a commanding lead. Credit to Ulster, they fought back in the second quarter and at half-time the game was in the balance. But Leinster took over again in the third quarter and effectively settled the game with fifteen minutes to go. There were many fine performances but the crucial 8-9-10 axis of Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and Johnny Sexton all chose a great time to have their best games of the season. They were able to direct a furious effort from the front five in which Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Mick Kearney were immense and Jordi Murphy, Ben Te'o and Luke Fitzgerald also had outstanding individual games. Spurred on by the large travelling support from Ulster, the Leinster support were also in raucous form and there was a cracking atmosphere in the ground that sent the fans home in great humour.

Leinster will need to raise themselves again though this weekend if they are to beat a Connacht team who've come off back to back wins over last season's champions Glasgow. Earlier in the season Connacht won praise for their devil may care attacking rugby but those two wins were based on a gritty defensive effort that never let up in intensity. Leading the way was their talisman Bundee Aki, the Pro12 player of the season. A ferocious tackler, he's also lethal in attack combining brute force with silky skills to devastating effect. His clash with Ben Te'o will be worth the ticket price alone. Te'o will be playing his last game for Leinster and the next time we see him on a rugby field, he'll be wearing an England jersey. He's still not quite the finished article as a union player, but when he's good he's dynamite as we saw with his superb offload to Jamie Heaslip for his try last week. Te'o will face his replacement Robbie Henshaw, who will play his last game for Connacht and will be desperate to leave as a champion before joining Leinster in the summer. Henshaw's battle with the latest Irish tryo centre Garry Ringrose will be another fascinating duel. Ringrose has recovered for a dip in form after Christmas and is starting to show that attacking awareness and ability to spot a gap again.

In the back three Tiernan O'Halloran was moved to full back from the wing to cover injuries but he has looked so comfortable there, he's made the position his own. On the wings former Leinster club players Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy have both been in great form. For Leinster Luke Fitzgerald and the Kearney brothers will have a big job keeping them under wraps.

The battle of the scrum-halves will be interesting as Kieran Marmion will be desperate to show Joe Schmidt he's ready to take over from Eoin Reddan as primary back-up to Conor Murray. At out-half the imperious Johnny Sexton takes on yet another former Leinster club man in AJ MacGinty. The Dublin-born US international caught the eye of Pat Lam in the summer at the World Cup. He's been a very astute signing though with an excellent all-round game and as he plays his final game for Connacht before moving to Sale, he'll be itching to beat the province of his birth.

On paper, Leinster's almost all-international pack looks well placed to dominate against a Connacht team of mostly less well-known players. However it almost never works like that, Connacht's pack almost always at least breaks even against Leinster and when you drill down into the names, they've got some real diamonds in there. Captaining the team from number eight is John Muldoon and if Connacht's longest serving player does lift the trophy at the end of the match, no one could begrudge him it. He's been there during the darkest days and turned down good offers to leave. This season he's been playing some great rugby at number eight which means the powerful young ball carrier Eoin McKeon plays at blindside. New Zealand's Jake Heenan completes the back row, a tough groundhog of a seven who could become an influential player for Ireland when he qualifies if he stays fit. Leinster will rely on Jamie Heaslip's leadership to take the fight to Connacht and Rhys Ruddock's physicality will be massive too. At openside Jordi Murphy has recovered from post world cup dip in form and he was everywhere last week making 25 tackles and creating havoc at the breakdown.

Leinster will target Connacht in the front five and former Connacht player Mick Kearney will be dying to put one over on his old team-mates. Kearney has been almost like a mid-season signing for Leinster, after he missed the first half of the season through injury. But he's been a revelation since he came into the side and he work-rate and carrying has complimented the imperious line-out work of Devin Toner superbly. However, Toner is ruled out and Ross Molony starts in his place. The young academy player has made significant strides this season, but filling Toner's boots is a big ask. They'll have their work cut out against the Connacht pair of Ultan Dillane and Aly Muldowney. Dillane is raw but his pure physicality saw him fast-tracked into the Ireland squad and he made quite an impression in his debut against England. Muldowney, yet another Connacht player playing his last game before moving on, has been one of Connacht's most important players this season, especially in attack. This is most unusual for a lock but the amount of times he takes the ball at first receiver and creates something with an intelligent option or a smart offload is quite remarkable.

In the front row Connacht are missing their two starting props in Nathan White and Denis Buckley. But tighthead Finlay Bealham is another serious prospect who's been fast-tracked into the Ireland squad and Ronan Loughney is an experienced operator on the other side. Another Kiwi Tom McCartney is one of the best technical hookers in the league. The Leinster scrum will be itching to have revenge on Connacht though after some troubles down in Galway. Jack McGrath and Mike Ross will be itching to have a go at it, provided Nigel Owens refs it consistently. Rounding out the pack, hooker Richardt Strauss is another Leinster player to have hit form at just the right time. In terms of the bench, Leinster's impact looks stronger particularly in the tight five.

So, who's going to win then? The bookies have Leinster as favourites and their greater experience should see them home. However Connacht will be playing under no pressure and with good weather forecast their expansive game could work well on the open spaces of the Murrayfield pitch. Leinster have been guilty of defending too narrowly at times and they were caught out in Galway in this regard for the game's only try. Leinster played poorly in that game but were still inches away from snatching a win at the end. They need to come at Connacht from the start with the same type of relentless aggression that shook Ulster. They also need to ruthlessly punish any Connacht handling errors, something they failed to do in Galway.

It's looking like Leinster but Connacht certainly have a chance. Either way, it promises to be a great match and a great occasion.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Connacht Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Tiernan O'Halloran
Dave Kearney 14 Niyi Adeolokun
Garry Ringrose 13 Robbie Henshaw
Ben Te'o 12 Bundee Aki
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Matt Healy
Johnny Sexton 10 Alan MacGinty
Eoin Reddan 9 Kieran Marmion

Jack McGrath 1 Ronan Loughney
Richardt Strauss 2 Tom McCartney
Mike Ross 3 Finlay Bealham
Ross Molony
4 Ultan Dillane
Mick Kearney 5 Aly Muldowney
Rhys Ruddock 6 Eoin McKeon
Jordi Murphy 7 Jake Heenan
Jamie Heaslip (C)
8 John Muldoon

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Dave Heffernan
Peter Dooley 17 JP Cooney
Tadhg Furlong 18 Rodney Ah You
Hayden Triggs
19 Andrew Browne
Jack Conan 20
Sean O'Brien
Luke McGrath 21 John Cooney
Ian Madigan 22 Shane O'Leary
Zane Kirchner 23 Peter Robb

Not Considered
due to Injury
Edward Byrne,
Tom Farrell,
Marty Moore,
Royce Burke-Flynn,
Gavin Thornbury,
Sean O'Brien,
Mike McCarthy,
Josh van der Flier,
Cian Healy,
Isa Nacewa,
Devin Toner

Denis Buckley,
Nathan White,
Eoghan Masterson,
Dave MacSharry,
Darragh Leader
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 136th competition game, 4th Final),
Assistant Referees: Ian Davies, Ben Whitehouse (WRU),
Timekeeper: Paul Cyphus (SRU),
Citing Commissioner: Maurizio Vancini (FIR),
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2016-05-27

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