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Magners League Grand Final
Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Thomond Park, Limerick,
Saturday, 28th May 2011, 17:05

Television: Live RTE 2, TG4, BBC Wales, BBC Alba

One day like this a year'd see me right- One Day Like This - Elbow

As the Leinster players lined up to collect their medals and the trophy last weekend, thousands of their fans in the stand sung along to Elbow's anthem. Yes, the fans may well have thought, one day like this a year would indeed see us right. It was a wonderful occasion and an incredible match, featuring one of the greatest comebacks ever seen in rugby.

At half-time, Leinster looked dead and buried. Their scrum was getting murdered and their trademark defence was as leaky as an Irish tribunal. There were also multiple handling errors that destroyed the few chances they did create going forward. In contrast Northampton were sharp as a tack, helping themselves to three tries and they were well worth their sixteen point half-time lead.

Had the pressure of being over-whelming favourites gotten to Leinster? Was this going to be like the old days when Leinster would get hyped up to the stars but then fall apart when it really mattered? The fans had their faith tested but surely there was time to come back? If they could just start playing like we know they could. As the team came back on the pitch, the noise from their supporters demanded a response and what a response it was!

In the second half, Leinster were a team transformed. With a bit of technical help from coach Greg Feek, Mike Ross turned the tables on Soane Tonga'uiha in the scrum, giving the team a platform to work off. Then they finally got running at Northampton with the remarkable Sean O'Brien leading the charge with a scarcely believable number of ball carries. They nearly all broke the gain-line as did the carries of Richardt Strauss, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy. Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines started putting manners on Northampton at the breakdown as did second-half substitute Shane Jennings. All of this allowed Eoin Reddan the platform to feed Jonny Sexton quick ball.

Sexton was simply incredible, kicking seven from eight attempts at goal and scoring two tries in a 28-point haul. It was a display that confirmed him as the best out-half in the tournament. Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Isa Nacewa all showed their true star quality after poor first halves. By the time Hines scored the third try, his first for Leinster, it was effectively game over with nearly fifteen minutes left. Northampton fans were obviously gutted, though they were remarkably gracious after the match. There was talk in the media about their players being tired, but even if they were fresh as a daisy, they wouldn't have been able to live with Leinster in the mood they were in for the second half. It was a truly fantastic final that will live in the memory of all rugby supporters for as long as they live.

So Leinster are now two-time Heineken Cup winners and doesn't that sentence have a lovely ring to it? Having joined the 'two-timers' club, Leinster will now focus on matching and over-taking Toulouse who currently have four titles to their name. But that's a discussion for another day as for now they still have business at hand with trying to become the first Irish team to do a League and European Cup double.

Standing in their way is a Munster team who'll be seriously sick of hearing all the plaudits coming Leinster's way this week. They'll want to remind the country of their own abilities and beating the European Champions at home to clinch the league would be just the way to do it.

Munster are hosting the final because their superb consistency in the league saw them finish first in the table, thirteen points ahead of Leinster in second place. They won a remarkable 19 out of 22 matches, going unbeaten at home and only losing away to Treviso, the Dragons and, of course, Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. Their record is a testament to the performance of their squad as, like Leinster, they have used 50 players this season. However they only have to look at Leinster last season to know that ultimately it will all count for nothing unless they complete the job and win tomorrow.

This is the second year of the Grand Final and the system has its detractors. However it's worth remembering that when Leinster and Munster won the first two Celtic League titles, they both did so by winning finals. In later years it became a straight league format and when both Leinster and Munster won their second league titles, they both did so as runaway winners. This meant the latter stages of the league fixtures lacked any real spark. So while it's a legitimate argument that the team that tops the table should take the trophy, everyone knew the format at the start of the season and on balance it's better for the tournament to have a big finale like the French and English leagues.

So Munster will be desperate to win after working so hard all season. That won't be their only motivation though. After breaking their five-match losing streak to Leinster with the win in April, they'll want to make it two in a row and it would also mean they'd win 2-1 in meetings this season. This would provide ample bragging rights for the long day and nights that most of these players will spend together in the next six months preparing and playing at the World Cup.

So Munster will be well motivated and they've selected the same team that started against the Ospreys in the semi-final. That means Danny Barnes is retained at outside centre after scoring two tries in that match. It's a big ask for the 21-year-old to go head-to-head with a player of Brian O'Driscoll's quality, but coach Tony McGahan has decided it's worth backing the young man as none of his more experienced centre pairings have worked anyway. Barnes partners Liefeimi Mafi in midfield and they'll be desperate to create some space for their back three of Felix Jones, Doug Howlett and Keith Earls who are on great form. Another youngster Conor Murray is retained at scrum-half alongside Ronan O'Gara, meaning Peter Stringer is on the bench and Tomas O'Leary misses out altogether.

In the front row the two veterans, Marcus Horan and John Hayes, are chosen at prop, quite a revival for the pair as they looked destined to serve out their season on the bench only a few months ago. They'll both be eager to roll back the years and convince Ireland coach Declan Kidney they're worth a place in his World Cup squad. Damien "The Dancer" Varley is at hooker and the old firm of Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell are in the second row. After getting injured in the last meeting in April, O'Connell will be desperate to last the whole match this time out. Donncha Ryan edges out Denis Leamy for the blindside flanker spot and David Wallace and James Coughlan complete the back row. Coughlan was excellent in the win in April and really should have been named man of the match. He constantly made ground with the ball in hand, even in the first half when they were struggling, and Leinster will have to watch him carefully, particularly from restarts.

There is only one change to the squad in that Johne Murphy's versatility gets him onto the bench ahead of young Simon Zebo. It also means there is no recall for experienced lock Mick O'Driscoll as Munster opt for two backrows instead in Leamy and Niall Ronan. Ryan will cover the second row, but it indicates that Munster are anticipating a high intensity game.

As much as Leinster will try to recreate their second half performance from last week, Munster will try to recapture the way they played against Leinster in April when they recovered from an eleven point half-time deficit to win by a point. They kept things simple and attacked Leinster around the fringes and for the first time in five and a half games, they won the battle at the breakdown. They played with real hunger and simply wanted it more than Leinster, who admittedly were probably distracted by the game the week after against Leicester. However that gameplan is also exhausting for the forwards to play over eighty minutes and it's success will depend a lot on Leinster indiscipline in their own half, something Leo Cullen will be determined to improve from the last day.

Cullen captains a Leinster team that shows three changes from the starting line-up against Northampton. With Gordon D'Arcy injured, Fergus McFadden comes in at inside centre, but it's a change that may have happened anyway such is McFadden's form. He's been electric lately and he'll relish the chance to get running at the Munster midfield pairing. In the front row Heinke van der Merwe comes in for Cian Healy at loosehead and in the back row Shane Jennings comes in for Kevin McLaughlin allowing Sean O'Brien to move back across to blindside. With Isaac Boss injured, Paul O'Donohoe comes in on the bench as do Aaron Dundon and Eoin O'Malley. Boss's physicality off the bench will be missed but O'Donohue will look to see some action on his farewell appearance for the province as will Stan Wright. Stan made himself hugely popular with the fans in Leinster and there will be a few tears shed in the stands when he troops off the field for the last time.

Once again Joe Schmidt has juggled his resources nicely and it's a very strong team. He'll want his team to play like they did in the first forty minutes down in Limerick in April, but this time with no game next week he'll want them to finish the job.

This is a very hard game to call as there are a lot of imponderables that we won't know until we see the teams lay into each other at the start. For Leinster, the minds are willing but after such a long, punishing season, will their bodies be able to match their ambitions? On Munster's side of things, it will be interesting to see how will they have managed the two-week break since their last match. Last year Leinster found that to be a problem, as they perhaps rested too much and they lost their rhythm completely resulting in an awful performance in losing to the Ospreys.

If Munster win, they will be worthy and deserved champions but Leinster will be desperate to be the first team to do the double. It will be tough as hell as it always is in Thomond but if Leinster have enough in the tank for another big 80 minutes then they might just have enough to complete the job and make history.


Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa 15 Felix Jones
Shane Horgan 14 Doug Howlett
Brian O'Driscoll 13 Danny Barnes
Fergus McFadden 12 Liefeimi Mafi
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Keith Earls
Jonathan Sexton 10 Ronan O'Gara
Eoin Reddan 9 Conor Murray

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Marcus Horan
Richardt Strauss 2 Damien Varley
Mike Ross 3 John Hayes
Leo Cullen (C) 4 Donncha O'Callaghan
Nathan Hines 5 Paul O'Connell (C)
Sean O'Brien
6 Donncha Ryan
Shane Jennings
7 David Wallace
Jamie Heaslip 8 James Coughlan

Replacements Aaron Dundon
16 Mike Sherry
Cian Healy
17 Wian du Preez
Stan Wright 18 Stephen Archer
Devin Toner 19 Denis Leamy
Kevin McLaughlin
20 Niall Ronan
Paul O'Donohoe
21 Peter Stringer
Ian Madigan 22 Paul Warwick
Eoin O'Malley
23 Johne Murphy

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney,
Shaun Berne,
Gordon D'Arcy,
Isaac Boss

Jerry Flannery,
Barry Murphy,
Dave Foley,
Tom Gleeson,
Dave Ryan,
Tony Buckley

Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistant Referees: Tim Hayes, David Jones (both WRU)
4th & 5th Assistants: Alan Rogan, Trevor Collins (both IRFU)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Eddie Walsh (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-05-27