Sport Rugby

Sunday 17 December 2017

Blues have firepower to subdue emerging Warriors

Leinster's dominance in the Pro12 illustrates the competition's failings, writes Jim Glennon

'A feature of Leinster's recent performances has been the contribution of Rhys Ruddock, and that fact is indicative of just where Leinster now find themselves.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
'A feature of Leinster's recent performances has been the contribution of Rhys Ruddock, and that fact is indicative of just where Leinster now find themselves.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jim Glennon

The provincial season finally draws to a close on Saturday in the RDS. The fifth final of the Celtic League competition sees Gregor Townsend's Glasgow Warriors in their debut decider following a period of sustained development. Conversely, this fifth league final features Leinster's fifth appearance, and their fourth at home in the RDS.

Leinster's constant presence in the competition's final is more than a mere illustration of their consistency and quality under three different coaches in Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt and Matt O'Connor; it also provides an interesting insight into the problems faced by the league as a competition. Leinster can only beat what is put in front of them and they've reached the finals on merit, despite having finished the job on just one of those five occasions, but their pre-eminence demonstrates perfectly the shortcomings of the competition.

At the semi-final stage last season, Leinster scraped past Glasgow in a game in which Glasgow really announced themselves as an emerging force. While yet to make a meaningful impression in Europe, and amid some suggestions of prioritisation of the league, Townsend has developed a formidable and capable unit notwithstanding particularly difficult financial constraints. Physically imposing in most positions and especially so up front where they use it to particular effect, they're well capable, as Munster discovered to their cost last week, of asserting a level of intensity capable of subduing most, if not all, of their rivals in this competition.

They've got players of quality in some positions too. Prior to last week, little had been seen of their young outhalf Finn Russell who had, until recent months, been plying his trade in the Scottish League with his home club Ayr RFC. He is now showing the benefits of Townsend's tutelage and his emergence is a welcome boost in tough times for Scottish rugby.

Nor were Munster's difficulties confined to their opponents' intensity – the Warriors' setpieces, along with their attacking in the tight channels, was particularly impressive and in Alistair Kellock and Jonny Gray, they possess an outstanding second-row partnership, a couple of real hard-nosed grafting pit ponies. Gray, a brother of Richie, caught the eye with his effective carrying and impressive work rate around the pitch. The ferocity which the pair brought to the game – with one carry from Kellock in which he knocked Paul O'Connell to the ground particularly noteworthy – was a major contributing factor to the result.

Townsend showed bravery in selection calls too. Having dropped Stuart Hogg – rumoured to be in talks about a move to Ulster – from the match-day squad entirely and confining talisman Nico Matawalu to the bench, the coach enjoyed the satisfaction of an excellent performance in their absence from the selected back-three.

Peter Murchie, Sean Maitland and, in particular, Tommy Seymour were physically threatening on every possession in a manner to which we have become accustomed here through the likes of Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and the Kearney brothers.

Leinster, on the other hand, have become a difficult team to read. Over the course of the season, they've managed to mix the mediocre with the sublime but have failed to hit the heights in recent weeks. Yes, they've done enough to earn their place in the final but it's difficult to know just which shade of blue will turn up next weekend. Having said that, the feeling persists they will do enough to get the job done.

Features of their performances in recent weeks have been the outstanding contributions of back-row colleagues Shane Jennings and Rhys Ruddock and that fact is indicative of just where Leinster now find themselves. Neither would be included in any list of marquee players at the RDS, but both are dogged, hard-nosed and highly-skilled competitors of a type for which the province wasn't renowned, however unfair that perception might be.

With no Irish playing interest in this weekend's European finals, season's end has an anti-climactic feel to it. While reaching the Pro12 final is a culmination of a season's work and an important yardstick

of a team's strength, it's impossible to say just what the future holds for this league of what, in the new reality of next season, are in danger of becoming largely peripheral franchises.

Weekly performance levels will assume greater importance from next season with qualification for the Rugby Champions Cup based on final league standings.

The year-round quality of the league will be dramatically enhanced as a consequence but just where the peripherals will ultimately sit in the pecking order of the new Europe remains to be seen.

The issue of whether the league competition is fit for purpose for the needs of our Irish participants, bringing to the table as they do the vast bulk of the tournament's quality and consumer interest, is bound to come under increased scrutiny.

That's for next season however; for the present, Leinster's achievement of reaching a fifth final in succession is indeed noteworthy. Just what level of performance we should expect is difficult to know but with two true legends in Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll bowing out at the end of careers which, by any standards, were quite remarkable, their colleagues won't be lacking motivation. I fully expect them to retain their title.

Sunday Indo Sport

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