The 2011/12 campaign for the Irish provinces finally comes to a close this Sunday at the RDS when the newly-re-crowned Heineken Cup champions try to add to their trophy cabinet by taking on the Ospreys in the RaboDirect Pro12 Grand Final.
In total Leinster have faced 14 different opponents at least once this season. There is only one of them they have failed to beat, and that’s the very same Welsh region they face this weekend. In many ways, the scene could not be set better.
One question a lot of Irish fans have been asking since last Saturday’s spectacle in Twickenham is why can’t the Irish national team play at the level that Leinster does. Well a similar question can be asked regarding the Ospreys. If the region can demolish Munster in the semifinal and Wales can win a Grand Slam, why weren’t they able to so much as get out of their Heineken Cup pool?
There are a few factors that came together the way I see it. First, there has been the much-publicised exodus of top Welsh talent to France over the past year or so. Then we had the announcement during the season that Ospreys coach Scott Johnson would be leaving his post at the end of the season and taking up a new role with the Scottish national set-up.
Generally top rugby clubs tend to hold onto their coaches to the end of the season even though they know they are leaving. Munster & Ulster did so this season, as did Leinster in 2010 which Michael Cheika’s departure was known.
The Swansea-based club instead decided to let Johnson go and immediately appointed Steve Tandy to take his place. This was an extremely sensible move and although they were out of contention in Europe, it allowed them to regroup and focus on the one trophy they had left to play for and as we saw in their semifinal at the Liberty Stadium, they have already developed a very efficient and rewarding style of play.
One feature of their game is the slick passing. Leinster overcame Ulster thanks mostly to their abilities defensively but the Welshmen have had an extra week’s rest and when they get the ball quickly out to the wings they often have as many as three waiting out there ready for fast offloads to get well beyond the gainline.
But they also have one weapon who has shown he can do that all on his own – Ashley Beck at 12. With Jamie Roberts forced on to the sidelines long term Beck must certainly be on Warren Gatland’s radar and though he may find it more difficult to make his gains past these particular 10/12 and 12/13 channels, is a strong threat nonetheless.
Then we have Adam Jones. Against Munster he not only showed his solid abilities in the scrum but we also saw him competently kick to touch as well as showing a top scrum-half’s awareness of space to get the move going at the end of the first half that led to the Fotuali’i try that effectively killed the contest.
So add all this quality around the park to the fact that the Ospreys did the Pro12 double over Leinster during the season and you get a side that will definitely come to Dublin this weekend with nothing to fear.
Meanwhile of course Joe Schmidt has had to keep his squad focused and considering most of them went through a similar experience last season only to lose the Magners League title in Limerick, his task shouldn’t have been too difficult.
There are some injury concerns, however, not surprisingly in the forwards. Two of their try scorers from Twickenham Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy look set to miss out though the latter is provisionally named on the bench. Leinster can still boast quality names to replace them – Heinke van Der Merwe has deputised well many a time over the past couple of seasons while there’s no doubting Shane Jennings’ credentials coming in at 7.
Also in the pack the European Champions have taken the enviable luxury of leaving Brad Thorn on the bench. It’s a sensible move in many ways – the All Black legend is at the end of his brief stay in Dublin and handing Devin Toner the start will not only give Leinster an extra edge in the lineouts but also prepare him for next season when surely he is to play a bigger role at the province.
In the backs, however, it’s as-you-were from the Heineken Cup winning lineup. Many say Ulster made a tactical error by playing the ball so frequently through their backs last Saturday but in some ways this benefited Leinster in that it prepared them for what the Welshmen will likely give them, but if there was one defence in Europe I’d bet on to keep them out it’s that one.
Going forward I fully expect the Ospreys be ready for an 80-minute battle to keep out Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton’s high-octane offence. Much will depend, as is often the case on these close-to-call occasions, on referee Romain Poite and his interpretation of the breakdown, for in Sexton and Dan Biggar we have the league’s two most prolific goal kickers this season so pretty much every transgression will be punished.
Now it’s time for my prediction. As tough a battle as I expect the Welshmen to present, I find it hard not to back this Leinster team, especially when I look at their bench, with experienced names like Thorn, Strauss and possibly Healy, plus the very talent in reserve that earned them this home advantage like Ian Madigan and Dave Kearney.
I believe there will be less than a try in it deep into the final quarter but reckon Leinster will just about make history coming out on top by 4-6 points when all is said and done.
Hopefully the excellent weather Dublin has enjoyed all week will hold out which would make it a thoroughly enjoyable end-of-season party at the RDS whatever happens on the pitch. That’s it for me this week, enjoy the match wherever you are and I’ll be back in a while to look at Ireland’s first test against the mighty All Blacks.