Sunday 28 December 2014

O'Connor needs to lay down silver marker

Published 31/05/2014 | 02:30

Jamie Heaslip goes through his paces in training ahead of tonight’s Pro 12 final against Glasgow
Jamie Heaslip goes through his paces in training ahead of tonight’s Pro 12 final against Glasgow Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

THE scene is set, the sun is booked and the silverware has been polished.

The end has finally arrived for Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen and now it is up to their Leinster team-mates to give them a fitting finale.

Both men cleared out their lockers in UCD on Thursday – a "strange" experience according to Cullen, who was doing his best to keep a lid on the sentimentality yesterday.

However, the packed arena will want a performance to match the occasion, for the three-time European champions to lift themselves out of the fug they have found themselves in all season, almost winning games despite themselves.

Glasgow Warriors arrive on the crest of a wave, determined to 'do an Ospreys' by spoiling Leinster's party.

The province's record in delivering in RDS finals is by no means exemplary and there is a window of opportunity for Gregor Townsend's impressive side.

MIXED

Matt O'Connor could do with a result to lift his report card out of the 'could do better' stakes. His first season has been a mixed bag, but a trophy would give him a strong foundation from which to build next season.

Leinster are now a meaner outfit than Joe Schmidt's edition, winning games through forward power, defensive stinginess and a bench that makes an impact, rather than deft hands and clever training-ground moves.

Against Ulster, there were signs that the magic was not far away, particularly when Ian Madigan slotted into the centre and opened up the field for those outside him with his clever passing game.

The focus on the backs' struggles has clouded the judgment on the impressive efforts of those in front of them.

With Cian Healy to the fore, they have dominated most opponents, and the inclusion of Mike McCarthy ahead of Quinn Roux strengthens their hand.

Jordi Murphy must again watch from the stands as O'Connor sticks with Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, with Sean O'Brien to come off the bench. The strength in depth is echoed by Jack McGrath and Marty Moore's ability to make their mark around the 50-minute mark.

Glasgow's pack are no mugs, however, and while the Scots have struggled to win on their visits to Dublin, they don't often lose by more than a score.

Against Munster, it was their relentless carrying that got them over the line, with captain Al Kellock laying down an early marker by bulldozing into Paul O'Connell.

Heaslip will have his hands full with Josh Strauss, while Chris Fusaro will look to spoil Leinster's ball all day. Behind the scrum, the hosts will be looking to pressurise novice fly-half Finn Russell, whose ascension to the No 10 shirt is a relatively recent one, with Townsend leaving Duncan Weir and Lion Stuart Hogg in the stands.

Outside Russell, centre Alex Dunbar is the key figure in unleashing a talented back three who can do damage, even if the cutting edge provided by Hogg's blistering pace and eye for a gap will be sorely lacking.

Then there's the Fijian brothers in arms who caused Munster all sorts of problems in the second half of the semi-final.

Scrum-half Niko Matawalu and back-row Leone Nakarawa thrive against tired defences, trying the unpredictable and wreaking havoc in broken play.

It is by no means a straightforward task for the Blues, who squeezed past the Warriors in last year's semi-final and are all too familiar with the Scots' cussedness.

Starved of success in the professional era, Scottish rugby has pinned plenty of hope on this club on the rise.

While the build-up in Dublin has been relatively low-key, the visitors were cheered through Glasgow airport yesterday and are bringing an unprecedented 3,000 fans to the Irish capital.

With nine wins in a row under their belt, they have momentum on their side and the victory over Munster has added to the pep in their step.

However, Rob Penney did spot a chink their armour and every time he sent James Downey up the middle during the narrow semi-final loss, the Reds got results, with two tries following as well as Simon Zebo's contentiously disallowed effort.

"We don't have James Downey," O'Connor smirked yesterday, but it will have been noted that the likes of Zane Kirchner, Gordon D'Arcy, Fergus McFadden and O'Driscoll are well able to take the direct route.

Jimmy Gopperth will control the field position and kick his goals, but Leinster need more of the spark he showed in the semi-final revival when they hauled in Munster. He could do with more creativity from D'Arcy outside him to boot.

Leinster's campaign comes down to 80 minutes, and a win – accompanied by a good performance – would do much to shape the mood for next season.

There will be talk of doing it for O'Driscoll and Cullen, but they'll want to do it for themselves and for their coach who has come in for some overly harsh criticism in recent weeks.

The Leinster job may be a rewarding one, but it is unforgiving too.

Winning the Pro12 would be a perfect send-off for the stalwarts, but it could also serve as a launchpad for the rest of the Australian's era. They should have enough.

Verdict: Leinster

Irish Independent

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