Sunday 20 August 2017

Westerners' momentum enough to overcome Leinster's deeper pool of experience

Absence of Toner could tip balance in Connacht’s favour ahead of showdown

Connacht’s centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will be crucial to their hopes of success this evening. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Connacht’s centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will be crucial to their hopes of success this evening. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As if Leinster didn't already feel as if the world and its mother was against them as they face up to Connacht this evening, Leo Cullen and his team endured a nightmare day on the road yesterday.

You'll find few people outside the 12 counties hoping that the three-time European champions regain their Guinness Pro12 crown given the popular appeal of Connacht's season and the sense of 'us against the world' will only have increased when their plane was first delayed, then got stuck on the runway before take-off in Dublin.

They spent more time on the plane after touching down in Edinburgh too, before a traffic accident delayed their arrival at Murrayfield.

All that after they lost two key members of their team for the final, with Isa Nacewa having failed to recover from the arm injury he suffered against Ulster and Devin Toner withdrawn following a family bereavement.

No wonder Leo Cullen and Jamie Heaslip looked a little impatient when they arrived for the pre-match press conference at the home of Scottish rugby, whereas an hour earlier Pat Lam and John Muldoon had cut relaxed figures in the same seats.

Connacht travelled to the Scottish capital on Thursday and were seen off at Knock Airport by a guard of honour ahead of the biggest day in their history.

Muldoon bashfully apologised to those who have written him messages, saying he simply can't keep up with the correspondence and good wishes.

"The support from people; neighbours, friends, people I went to school with, who haven't seen in a while, people I don't know... I got cards even today off people I don't know," he said with a smile.

"I managed to get some luck money as well. It's an old Irish tradition, twice actually in the last couple of days. I would say there is a lot of Novenas to be said and candles going to be burnt throughout the night and we will take all of the help that we can get."

There is a charm to Connacht's story that simply doesn't apply to the Leinster machine that rolled into Edinburgh.

For all they are talking their neighbours up, you can't win four European trophies and three leagues in the last eight years and hope to be anything other than the bad guys in an underdog story. Murrayfield is full of happy memories for Cullen who lifted the province's first Heineken Cup at the venue in 2009.

Although he goes into the game without his captain in Nacewa and lineout specialist in Toner, he can still call on a team packed with international class.

Last Friday, they upped their intensity levels and blew Ulster away and the big question over today's game is whether Connacht can live with the heat if Leinster crank up their line-speed and attack the ruck with Test-level ferocity.

The westerners are quietly confident about what they can do, even if they are facing up to the best defence in the competition. They will feel that the loss of Toner evens things up at set-piece.

Ross Molony has a big day ahead of him, but even at his best he can't replicate the Meath man's basic physical attributes; nor does he have the experience calling lineouts in such a pressure-cooker environment.

Lam will back his tight five to gain parity at least, while Jake Heenan will back himself at ruck-time as John Muldoon and Eoin McKeon are charged with getting over the gain-line and making tackles.

It is up to Connacht to disrupt Eoin Reddan and Johnny Sexton's quality of possession because if the Ireland pair get an armchair ride then the men in green will be in trouble.

The centre battleground will be key, with Garry Ringrose sizing up to his likely partner next year Robbie Henshaw and the Samoan pair of Ben Te'o and Bundee Aki renewing acquaintances.

There was no love lost last time and we can expect fireworks when they collide.

Connacht's back three can expect plenty of aerial attention and all three have something to prove after being overlooked by Joe Schmidt for the summer tour despite their brilliant attacking exploits this season. If they can show strongly today, they will answer yet more of the Ireland coach's doubts.

Lam is promising a positive approach and wants his team to enjoy the occasion despite the history that is weighing on their shoulders.

Cullen says his game-plan is a simple one and he will trust that the experience in his ranks and leadership available will see his side through. If his side can get to the right pitch of intensity, then they have the players to win it yet the momentum appears to be with Connacht who have seen off a fine Glasgow Warriors side twice in three weeks to be here.

If they can manage the occasion and get through the first 10 minutes, then their skill-set and attacking plan can do damage to even the best defences with the pace of Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun out wide.

With Nigel Owens in charge, the usual Pro12 caveats about officiating don't apply and the game should flow as both teams look to play off scrum ball.

Leinster have the experience, but Connacht have the momentum.

It might just be enough to get them over the line.

Verdict: Connacht

Irish Independent

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