Sunday 1 March 2015

Tony Ward: Leinster can put a halt to Warriors gallop

Published 31/05/2014 | 02:30

27 May 2014; Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor during a press conference ahead of their RaboDirect PRO12 final against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday. Leinster Rugby Press Conference, Rosemount, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE
27 May 2014; Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor during a press conference ahead of their RaboDirect PRO12 final against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday. Leinster Rugby Press Conference, Rosemount, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE

Win today, and it's been a good season for Leinster, despite missing out on European silverware.

But should Glasgow Warriors upset the odds at the RDS, then a good season for the Scots will become great as a new force on the European scene declares itself officially 'arrived.'

I am already a signed-up fan of Sean Lineen, Gregor Townsend and everything this go-ahead Scotstoun club with massive community potential is achieving in its climb to the top of the Pro12 ladder. Visit Scotstoun and you are in feel-good territory. The product is good, very good.

Northern hemisphere rugby needs a vibrant Scottish input and it's coming. Not through Edinburgh or the sadly defunct Borders, but through the football stronghold that is Glasgow.

The oval ball might trail the Old Firm in popularity, but inroads are being made slowly but surely as floodlit rugby becomes firmly established in the general Clydebank/Dumbarton area.

GENERATION

For today's generation of rugby fans it is hard to believe that Irish and Scottish rugby were once almost joined at the hip.

Off the field, the Celtic cousins did everything in unison and, in fact, on field, in terms of success, the Scots led the way. How times have changed with the Thistle and Shamrock moving in polar opposite directions since the game turned professional.

While the four provinces fitted snugly into place in the professional era, the SRU, through District/Super District, trialled various permutations.

As an outside observer, I bemoan the loss of Border Rugby. Playing at Selkirk, Hawick or wherever was akin to Limerick, the Valleys, New Zealand in terms of rugby passion.

I don't know much about the politics involved, but in ditching the Borders, Scottish rugby suffered a rush of blood to the head.

And while Edinburgh and Murrayfield will continue to be the high altar of Scottish rugby, there is something like that Border formula being resurrected in the rise and rise of Glasgow rugby at the moment.

And just as Munster captured the hearts of rugby folk everywhere through daring deeds, particularly in the formative years of the Heineken Cup, so too, in a Pro12 context, is Glasgow now. There is an intensity, a level of commitment and unity of purpose with which any observer can identify.

So, while for Leinster it might appear just another Pro12 final (the fifth in a row), for Glasgow – and by extension for Scottish rugby – this could be their watershed moment.

Edinburgh getting to the Heineken Cup semi-finals under Michael Bradley was tremendous, but it was a freak period. Only time will tell with Glasgow, but you suspect a revolution is under way, and a win today will take that transformation to another level.

So, can the Warriors storm the RDS fortress and turn their recent history in the D4 fixture – just one win in 17 visits – on its head?

One thing is for certain – another belter of a contest guaranteed.

Bear in mind, too, that Leinster have won just one (last year over Ulster) of the four finals since the play-off system came into place. They lost at the RDS to the Ospreys in 2010 and 2012 and in Limerick in 2011.

Rest assured, minds will be focused on the final battle if back-to-back success in the tournament is to be achieved for the first time and 'choking' for the fourth time in five is not to become a very real issue going forward.

I won't make a big deal of the Brian O'Driscoll/Leo Cullen farewell as it has been well and truly covered at this stage. Its only relevance today should be in the dressing-room and to the other 21 players in the match-day squad in making a win the only 'go raibh mile maith agat' of consequence.

That would represent job done, legacy complete.

I predict with confidence a final befiting the marathon campaign.

Given how close the semi-finals were, we could have been heading to Limerick for a Munster/Ulster decider, but in the end, the right results prevailed and the two best squads over the course of the season emerged bloodied but unbowed.

All recent evidence, including a league win each way (the most recent a 17-15 success for Leinster at the RDS earlier in the month) suggests another game set for the wire, with the Warriors the more impressive of the two at the penultimate stage.

It could swing either way, but I'm going with head and heart in predicting the Matt O'Connor defence to prevail and Brian to up the ante when galloping off alongside Leo into the sunset. Leinster by a whisker.

 

Thomond naming rights a price Reds must pay

Should Glasgow Warriors succeed in dethroning reigning Pro12 champions Leinster today, it would top off a groundbreaking week for the SRU and for Scottish rugby.

Their multi-million pound four-year deal with BT includes naming rights to the national stadium, but only on the condition that Murrayfield is retained as part of the stadium's title going forward.

So for the duration of the four-year deal, which is set to catapult Scottish rugby to a new level of competitiveness, the iconic Edinburgh stadium will be officially known as BT Murrayfield.

As Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald is more than aware, retaining Thomond Park as part of the Limerick stadium's title must be a non-negotiable prerequisite of any deal to sell the naming rights to what is the spiritual home of Irish rugby.

I think I am fairly well placed to appreciate the sensitivities involved in selling what is undoubtedly a central part of the heritage of Limerick and Munster rugby, but it also has to be acknowledged that the game has changed beyond recognition.

Money talks and for Munster to stay at the top table and compete with the nouveau riche of European rugby, then short of private investment (and that too will come when the time, price and investor is right), selling the naming rights to Thomond Park is inevitable.

Of course we all wish it didn't have to come to that and that the best aspects of the amateur game could stay with us forever, but life in the fast lane of professional rugby doesn't work like that.

Many fans will find it tough to take, but a Murrayfield-type compromise represents the best-case scenario – there's no doubt it's coming our way.

 

Gray area for Richie and Jonny's parents

Pity poor Mr and Mrs Gray and their dilemma this weekend. Paris or Dublin? Richie or Jonny? Castres or Glasgow? Mr & Mrs Gray, you see, are the parents of Scottish and Lions lock Richie and the fast emerging second-row lighthouse that is the younger brother Jonny

With Richie lining out for Castres in the French club's defence of their Top 14 title against Toulon at Stade de France and Jonny absolutely central to Glasgow's cause in the Pro12 final in Dublin, it's really unfortunate for the parents.

It is an extraordinary achievement for the Gray brothers and proof positive that with a more streamlined, professional structure the talent can still coming through the Scottish underage ranks. The challenge is to keep a fair share at home.

Bear in mind, too, that Stuart Hogg, arguably the national side's most impressive player – certainly offensively – cannot make Gregor Townsend's Warriors squad, such has been Peter Murchie's consistent form in the last line of the Glasgow defence throughout this marathon Pro12 season.

Eclipsed only by the possibility of Roy Keane taking over the Bhoys, the Scottish media have not been slow in flagging the talented Hogg's potential move to Ulster to become another key cog in the David Humphreys' northern revolution.

Whatever differences may have arisen between the Warriors head coach and arguably his star turn, it further emphasises the developing strength in depth of Scottish rugby and also the force coming Leinster's way.

Irish Independent

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