Tuesday 6 December 2016

'Haves' clash with 'have-nots' in fitting finale

Published 24/05/2016 | 02:30

Ian Madigan and Jamie Heaslip make their way to Leinster’s training session at Belfield yesterday on a scooter. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ian Madigan and Jamie Heaslip make their way to Leinster’s training session at Belfield yesterday on a scooter. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
John Muldoon had no such luxury recently when he had to jump over a mudheap at the Sportsground. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

Pat Lam was only half-joking when he playfully suggested that Connacht will be playing against Ireland in Saturday's Guinness Pro12 final, and his remarks were part of the now-familiar race for the tag of outsiders for a big game.

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The head coach's utterances were followed by a 'We must be 50/1' from John Muldoon as the Westerners took up their place in the long grass.

They got there first and it will be hard for Leinster to shift them.

Not that it will stop them trying, even if it feels a bit churlish from a province who, since 2008, have won the Heineken Cup three times, the Challenge Cup and three Pro12 titles.

In contrast, Saturday's opponents have largely been scratching around the league's bottom half and relying on their easterly neighbours for a chance to play in Europe's top competition.

Installed

For the record, the bookies have installed the Blues as five-point favourites on the handicap spread before the teams are revealed.

Joe Schmidt is a pretty shrewd judge of a rugby player and, when he last named a 44-man Ireland squad ahead of the summer tour of South Africa, he invited 20 Leinster players to join him compared to six from Connacht.

Take last weekend's starting XVs as a guide and in 12 of 15 head-to-heads the Leinster player is a more experienced international.

Rival inside-centres Ben Te'o and Bundee Aki are uncapped - as are second-rows Mick Kearney and Aly Muldowney.

Robbie Henshaw is Connacht's only winner in that head-to-head analysis. Henshaw, who is joining Leinster next month, has 20 caps while Garry Ringrose is still waiting for his first.

When Leo Cullen picks his team for Saturday, he will select from 23 internationals plus soon-to-be England player Te'o, with four Test Lions in the mix. Lam, meanwhile, will have eight capped players available to him.

Yet, Girvan Dempsey seemed almost affronted by the idea that Leinster would be favourites when it was put to him that, by dint of the fact that his side have the stronger roster, they should win.

"No, certainly not," he said. "You look at Connacht's consistent form throughout the season, it's been excellent.

"You look at the league table and it's fitting that it's one plays two as the league ran out.

"But Connacht have been consistently on the attack throughout the season, they score tries and challenge you in every facet of the game, from a strong set-piece to a wide attack.

"Defensively, you look at the last two games against Glasgow and they were very strong so they've obviously worked on that, so any game, especially a final, you don't take anything for granted. . . it's a final, it's Cup rugby, it's on the day."

It shouldn't be, though. Everything we know about professional sport says Connacht should not win this final, yet they have beaten Scotland's equivalent of Leinster in Glasgow Warriors twice in the last three weeks.

Win or lose this weekend, Lam's achievement in moulding this team into potential league-winners has been remarkable.

Yet, Leinster topped the table with a sense of ennui that was only shaken by the 30-6 shellacking they received in Belfast three weeks ago.

Last Friday, they bared their teeth and brought Test-match intensity to the Pro12. When they hit their stride, Ulster could barely scratch them.

One reason for Lam's success this season is the continuity of selection he has enjoyed during the World Cup and Six Nations Championship while his rivals were cobbling together overseas signings, senior players past their prime and academy prospects to field a team.

Against Ulster, Leinster had only one player with more than 20 appearances for the province this season in Te'o, whereas Lam had seven in his starting XV a day later.

The former Auckland Blues coach is also in his third year of instilling his ideas in a group of players who appear to have fully bought into his plan, while Cullen is in year one of his first major coaching appointment.

Numbers

Yet, can the gap between these squads really be explained away in those numbers?

When Cullen's internationals are away, he can dip into one of the most successful academy systems in Europe, with players drawn from the riches of the province's schools system.

The Westerners' injury list is rarely anything less than long, so Lam has also had to delve into the academy and when he has called on the likes of Sean O'Brien, James Connolly and Peter Robb, they have delivered for him.

A combination of smart scouting and hard work has seen the western province pick up gems who have missed out on contracts elsewhere.

On Saturday, AJ MacGinty will line up opposite Johnny Sexton at the end of his first season as a professional rugby player. The Dublin-born USA international is 26.

"It's absolutely incredible to come from club rugby or college football in America and then play in the World Cup," his captain John Muldoon said of the Blackrock product who moves to Sale Sharks this summer as Springbok Marnitz Botha arrives in Galway.

"He's been absolutely outstanding. AJ punches well above his weight, he's absolutely outstanding on 'D'.

"He's a good lad and we'll be sad to see him go. Unfortunately we can only have one out-half that's not Irish-qualified, which is unfortunate because the way he's playing I'd say Ireland would have been looking at him."

A year ago MacGinty was playing for Life University in Georgia, now he is facing up to Europe's finest out-half in a 67,200-capacity stadium.

It is one of a number of unlikely stories in a dressing-room full of players with something to prove.

Leinster's team, meanwhile, is packed full of blue-chip schools prospects polished in their academy.

"You can't say that they haven't done well," Ireland prop Jack McGrath said yesterday.

"Look where they've come from in three years, it's brilliant. The quality of the players and coaches that they have now is excellent.

"People are talking about them being the underdogs, I don't think that's the case, it's not a fluke that they're here.

"They're not up there in the try-scoring stats, defensive stats, winning stats by accident, they've had a winning season and they've got key players in key areas that have played really well"

For all of that, there is a sense that if Leinster show up on Saturday with the levels of intensity they showed on Friday night they'll prove too strong.

Lam suggested that with the South Africa tour approaching, Leinster's thoroughbreds are kicking into gear and they have far more experience of playing in finals than their opposite numbers.

All season, however, Connacht have been breaking down barriers and making history.

Despite the strength of their rivals, they finished the season level on points with Leinster and missed out on top spot because they'd won one less game.

Their coaches have developed an attacking style that few opponents have been able to shut down and, while their defence has come under fire, they limited Glasgow Warriors to two tries in 160 minutes in their last two matches.

And, for all that the international selections tend to go the way of the eastern province, there is a quiet belief in the west that they are due a few more caps after such a good season which was voiced by Eoin McKeon in these pages last month.

On paper, they shouldn't have a chance, yet they will travel to Edinburgh full of belief that the have-nots can beat the haves and take the Pro12 title.

Irish Independent

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