Connacht V Leinster, Pro12 final – its happening!
The teams have finally been announced, the week is over and the day is almost upon us. Every time I think about tomorrow I feel tingles.
There has been a lot of criticism of the venue selection, given how hard it is to get here and find accommodation, and I have a lot of sympathy for people who have had to spend a lot of money, and even more for those who can’t afford to go. But the neutral venue may be really important for us, and certainly is better than playing in the Aviva as Thornley suggested. Yes, there would be a bigger crowd but its basically Leinster’s third home pitch (why do they need three?) and every Leinster STH would have bought a ticket at the start of the season, leaving us hopelessly outnumbered. Here in Edinburgh we have a fairer fight. In addition, while its not exactly Siberia the efforts that people have gone to in order to see Connacht play in a small way continues the heroics of Krasnoyarsk and the efforts of the team and small group of devoted fans who went out to Russia. While they may have to work hard to get here, it can only contribute to the passion and emotion that they will feel when the team run onto the field, and the efforts that they put into supporting their boys.
Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the Leinster – Ulster game last week; I just couldn’t bring myself to do so knowing that whoever won would be facing Connacht. But I don’t think we could have hoped for a better opponent in this final. Yes Leinster have tons of internationals and experience, but Connacht always love a go against them and always fancy their chances to upset the boys in blue. If there were any nerves about being in a final for the first time they will be brushed aside when they see the familiar faces that they love to beat. The Leinster team selection has provided a wee boost of confidence – the biggest news is that Toner is out, which takes away a massive strength of theirs and almost evens the packs. Sexton is obviously a cut above most fly halves, so its imperative that we disrupt that 9-10 axis. Marmion loves playing against Reddan so that will be a point in our favour there. After 10 is where things get interesting. Nacewa has probably been their most dangerous back and is obviously their club captain – a massive loss. R Kearney’s hamstring may go at any time, while the two wings will work hard but are often found wanting creatively. This is partly because T’eo at 12 has not gelled fully imo, which means moves often finish abruptly with the big lad. Ringrose is still raw, and can sometimes drift out of games, especially if Nacewa is not guiding him.
There has been a lot of talk after the semi final that Leinster the knock out rugby specialists are back – but I would rather base assumptions on the form of the season rather than a one off game. Connacht have been more than capable against Leinster already this season and have shown a strength in defence and more particularly in attack that Leinster have lacked for most of it. In addition there is a cohesion in the team both in the forwards unit and as a whole that I don’t think Leinster have managed to equal, and may find hard to deal with given the above disruptions and reintroduction of injured players.
Potential game plan
Having said all that, I fully expect the first half from Leinster to be an absolute bludgeoning, hoping to win penalties and potentially put as many of our guys off the field as possible by half time. With Toner out the lineout assurance is no longer there but they will still play a set piece orientated game and use the kicking talent of Sexton to attempt to pin Connacht back and hope that their wings can win possession over our smaller but more skilful outside backs.
I said last week that I wasn’t sure if Nige would suit us, and I stand by that for the most part. I think the Leinster players will have a lot more experience playing under Owens and how to play to his preferences. Hopefully Lam and his team will have looked at what he likes at the breakdown and adjusted accordingly. In the past Leinster have been experts at making the ‘golden metre’ by driving past the ruck and winning quick ball – if they succeed at this and pick and go or hit one out runners coming at pace then they will be very difficult to stop. It may be that Connacht only commit one player per ruck in order to fan out and continue the quick linespeed of the first Glasgow game to try and stop those runners before the gainline.
Connacht name an unchanged team after what must have been some frenetic training sessions. The likes of SOB, Robb, Poolman and SOL may feel aggrieved at missing out on a starting or bench spot, but I’m sure Lam’s selection is based on form and playing to the strengths that worked so well against Glasgow. The obvious difference between those fixtures is Leinster will have a much bigger and more effective pack, and it would be difficult to see their lineout malfunctioning to the level of Glasgows, though that may well in part have been due to the weather conditions. I would favour Tom and Finlay over Strauss and Ross, but McGrath has been a better loosehead than Loughney for more than a season now, though the latter has improved in the last few games. Finlay’s Irish experience in training camps against McGrath will be huge for us.
With Toner out our second row is just better. Kearney is just back from injury and while Moloney will be a good player Dillane is playing like a potential lion, while this has been Aly’s career season.
The backrow battle is on a knife edge. While Murphy allegedly played well at 7 last week its his worst position and we have a ‘real’ 7 which should put us in pole position. As a result it will be Leinster’s primary aim to nullify Heenan’s threat, but McKeon and Mul both have enough experience at the breakdown to make a mess of things for Murphy when called upon. Ruddock should have the physical and lineout edge on McKeon, but the latter has a huge point to prove and has been a tackling machine for weeks now. Mul v Heaslip – no contest.
Our main advantage is from 11-15, and I honestly believe that on form right now we have the better players in each of those positions, regardless of what the media has said this week. It might be tight between Kearney and TOH based on past performance, but the latter outplayed one Lions fullback last week and is brimming with confidence. Our wings specialize in different things to theirs, so depending on who is better able to assert their gameplan we will see one or other set of wingers dominate, but any suggestions that Healy and Niyi as poor at any of Kearney and Fitz’s strong points are well wide of the mark. Our centres are just better, plain and simple.
The game may well be decided in the last 10 to 15 minutes, and while I would normally have backed Leinster’s squad depth against ours, amazingly I think we have the superior bench. Certainly man for man I would possibly only take Cronin over Heffernan, and that’s purely due to the formers experience and obvious pace, as I think Heffernan will be a quality player in his own right. Though Cronin and Conan provide impact, I think SOB, Cooney, SOL and Robb can do the same for us, while Cullen will be hoping to bring on some of his options as late as possible if at all.
An awful lot has been made of the Leinster experience in finals and Connacht’s relative lack of experience, and how difficult it might be to keep emotion in check. Its undoubtedly true that Leinster have many seasoned internationals, but Connacht also have experience throughout the squad. The recent Irish caps for a number of guys will be a boost here, but Mul achieves his 275th cap tomorrow, which is just extraordinary. McCartney and Aly have lead by example and are grizzled veterans. Henshaw has two six nations medals (though he may be a bit embarrassed by the first one) and Bundee is a Super XV champion. And surrounding those guys is a group of players who are ravenous for success, who have a point to prove to Leinster, to the doubters who rejected them as not good enough in the past, or the Irish selectors who have overlooked them just this week.
In addition, although not all of the players have been in multiple semi-finals we have been through a number of European knock out games and that will stand to them, along with the Gloucester game at the end of last season, when Connacht really showed what they are capable of building on for this season, which they obviously did and then some. Yes, there will be massive emotion in this game but if you can’t get emotional for your first final when can you? In any case, everything Lam has taught the squad in his time in Ireland has been about mental preparation.
For me, the loss to Glasgow at the start of this season seemed to strengthen Connacht’s resolve to never again play the reputation but just to play the team in front of them. Since then there has not been a game where Connacht have had their tails between their legs just because they were away from home, playing against history, outsupported by the home crowd or playing against a clear favourite. Again and again this team has toppled old restrictions and barriers, and built new expectations.
The spirit of Krasnoyarsk looms over this and every game this season. Lam successfully used it as a defining moment in this season and even in the careers of these players. It was an example of what they could achieve as a team, when it seemed like the conditions were against them, when an extraordinary effort was required from them. It has galvanised the squad wonderfully throughout the year and will do so again tomorrow.