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Leinster Rugby vs Ospreys
Magners League Grand Final
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday 29th May 2010, 18:30

Television: Live Setanta Ireland

When the Magners League announced that they were introducing play-offs, they must have been hoping for a first Grand Final like tomorrow with first versus second and two star-studded teams to boot. Both teams have two titles to their names and will want to be the first to complete the hat-trick. Leinster come into the game full of confidence after their excellent semi-final win over Munster two weeks ago. However they will be very wary of an Ospreys team that is packed with talent and who very much have a point to prove.

The Ospreys have had a very controversial season where they've almost made more headlines off the field than on it. There was the Lee Byrne affair, which they pretty much got away with and then the Ricky Januarie affair from which they escaped unharmed. The third time was the charm though and they were fined £100,000 and docked four points (for next season) for not turning up for a match against Ulster in March. They are appealing that punishment but all this has contributed to a siege mentality in the club, justified or not. They feel the world is against them and coach Sean Holley is very much playing on that for motivation.

On the face of it, Leinster's record against the Ospreys is pretty good in that they've won the last six meetings. That record is somewhat misleading though as, for various reasons, they've never faced a full-strength Ospreys team in the last three seasons. The last time they did field a full-strength team against Leinster in April 07, the Ospreys won 19-17 on their way to winning their second championship. In their last meeting six weeks ago, the Ospreys pushed Leinster to the limit, losing only 20-16, despite playing their third match in a week. The Ospreys are a seriously good outfit and it will need a big performance from Leinster to win tomorrow.

No matter what happens in the match, it's the end of an era for Leinster as it's Michael Cheika's final game after five years in charge. A full tribute to Cheika will follow next week, but there's no doubt he's transformed Leinster and will be a hell of a hard act to follow. Of course he's not the only part of the management team leaving.

Chris Whitaker is leaving his post as manager to follow Cheika to Stade Francais. Whitaker was a hugely influential figure in his four years at Leinster as both player and manager and was held in the highest respect by the whole squad. His wife, Alison, was also a great help behind the scenes, especially in aiding the wives and partners of foreign players settle in Dublin. They'll both be missed.

Alan Gaffney is leaving his post at Leinster to concentrate solely on his role as Ireland's backs coach. Gaffney was first involved in Leinster as Matt Williams's assistant when Leinster first emerged as a serious force in the game. He moved on to become head coach at Munster and then director of rugby at Saracens with a short stint as Australia assistant coach in between. However it was fitting that he was back at Leinster for their greatest triumph in the Heineken Cup last season. He was an astute and innovative coach and was a gentleman of the old school, always willing to make time to chat with supporters. His important role in bringing Leinster to where they are now will be remembered.

Kurt McQuilkin is another coach leaving, as he's moving back to his native New Zealand. In his three years as defensive coach he's had a massive influence. In the past Leinster's defence was always their Achilles' heal, they could score tries but were just as likely to concede them too. In his first season in the role he saw the Scarlets score six tries at the RDS and he knew he had his work cut out for him. However the players bought into his system and last season the defence was the meanest in Europe only conceding 26 tries in total. The five tries they conceded in nine games was the foundation on which the Heineken Cup was won. In particular, the goal-line stand in the Harlequins quarter-final will stand out in his mind. Kurt was more than just a technical coach though; he was the positive guy on the sidelines (in his trademark shorts, rain or shine) always encouraging the players. He's taking a break from the game for family reasons but hopefully somewhere down the line he'll make his way back to Leinster, where he'll always be welcome.

That's the coaches but there are also players to mention as Chris Keane is retiring and CJ van der Linde is moving back to South Africa. Bernard 'Birch' Jackman is also following Girvan Dempey and Malcolm O'Kelly into retirement. Sadly, his retirement has been forced on him by injury but he can still look back on his career with satisfaction. A Carlow man, he took the long road to playing for his native province including two spells at Connacht and one at Sale. He even took a season off at one point and played as an amateur for Clontarf while working as a medical sales rep. Even when he finally signed for Leinster in 2005, things didn't run smoothly as a broken leg in his first season held him back. In his second season he was third choice hooker behind Brian Blaney and Harry Vermass and it looked like his Leinster career could be over.

However he got a chance away to Agen when the other two hookers were injured and he never looked back from there. The next season he was a massive part of Leinster winning the Magners League and his all action performances saw him named as player of the season. He became a real crowd favourite and was also a big part of the Heineken Cup win last year. This season, injuries finally caught up with him and John Fogarty took over as starting hooker. However he still had his moments, particularly when he captained a very young Leinster team to a vital win over in Cardiff. He was a whole-hearted player who literally put his body on the line for the team every time he put on the jersey. Off the field, he was always a very approachable guy who always made time for fans after matches, win or lose. He's already begun his coaching career at Clontarf and hopefully he'll be successful enough to be able to return to Leinster one day in that capacity.

Sadly, Jackman will have to settle for the role of spectator tomorrow but Malcolm O'Kelly will be able to start his final Leinster game while Girvan Dempsey settles for a spot on the bench. O'Kelly starts again in place of Leo Cullen who will be shortly undergoing shoulder surgery. The only change to the team sees CJ van der Linde come in for Cian Healy, with Stan Wright switching across to loosehead prop. Healy has been ill for most of the week and he's been bracketed with Mike Ross on the bench. He was instrumental in the wins over Edinburgh and Munster and it would be a huge shame if he misses out completely on the big day.

The Ospreys are unchanged from their win against Glasgow and can name an all-international first fifteen including eight lions and two All-Blacks. Tommy Bowe has been their star man this season, winning player of the season awards in both Ireland and Wales. He's on fire at the moment and he forms a stellar back three with Lee Byrne and Shane Williams. James Hook has also been on great form in the second half of the season since settling at centre and Dan Biggar has been very consistent at out-half. In the pack Adam Jones will fancy a crack at the Leinster scrum and Jerry Collins will look to put himself about at the breakdown in his usual abrasive manner. They also have named a very strong bench with the likes of Ian Gough, Gareth Owen and Nikki Walker and the great Filo Tiatia will be looking to mark his last appearance with a win.

It has the potential to be a great final and hopefully the rain that's forecast will stay away for the match at least. There are so many individual match-ups that will be crucial: Lions full-back rivals Kearney v Byrne, form wingers Nacewa v Bowe, young out-halves Sexton v Biggar, arch groundhogs Jennings v Holah, bulldog props Wright v Jones and you could go on and on. Jamie Heaslip was recently named player of the season for Leinster and he'll be looking to continue his recent outstanding form.

It's going to be another tight, nerve-shredding game but if Leinster can reproduce the performance they gave in the second half against Munster, especially in defence, then they should be able to win and bring a happy end to so many Leinster careers.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-05-29