Sport PRO14

Tuesday 18 June 2019

Bernard Jackman: 'Leo's men show true class to bounce back'

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen celebrates with Frank Sowman, Chairman, Leinster Rugby
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen celebrates with Frank Sowman, Chairman, Leinster Rugby

Bernard Jackman

Losing a final like Leinster did against Saracens in the Champions Cup a few weeks ago can often derail a team. It can knock a team's confidence at a crucial period of the season, so this was an impressive victory that Leo Cullen's side dug out in Glasgow.

Leinster have been accustomed to winning finals when they get there, and so it proved again.

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They had already showed their maturity and experience by bouncing right back with that impressive home semi-final win over Munster.

Glasgow won Conference A in impressive fashion, and they would have fancied their chances at the home of Glasgow Celtic. But Leinster were able to rotate their squad intelligently in recent weeks. They managed their games, given they were fighting on two fronts.

There is no doubt that the two best teams were on the final stage and what a great stage it was, with both teams getting the opportunity to play in such an historic stadium.

It was an added bonus for the game that both teams were able to field nearly full-strength sides, which was testament to the quality of the conditioning and medical staff at the clubs given how physical and attritional the modern game is.

Both sides had very different strategies in their kicking policy, with Leinster looking to kick the ball high and contestable to target DTH van der Merwe and Tommy Seymour in the air. They were also out to limit Glasgow's opportunity to counter-attack from deep.

Glasgow, meanwhile, looked to use Stuart Hogg's massive right boot to kick long and turn the Leinster cover in their search for field position. They were trying to use Hogg to relieve pressure in their own 22 when great pressure from Luke McGrath forced a block-down and the ball richocheted kindly for Garry Ringrose to touch down. This was the perfect response to Matt Fagerson's try.

If Glasgow had a weakness it was their front five, and that was magnified when their Scottish international hooker Fraser Brown was stretchered off after 25 minutes with what looked like a nasty knee injury. Leinster definitely had the edge at scrum time and that gave them the capability to win key penalties at the set-piece.

The rain that fell made it harder for Glasgow to get width into their attack, which didn't suit them. With a five-point lead at half-time the first 10 minutes of the second half was text-book game management by Leinster. They played in the right area of the pitch and Johnny Sexton's penalty with Kyle Steyn in the bin made it a two-score lead for Leinster.

Leinster threw the ball wide twice during the yellow card. Jordan Larmour, twice, and Sexton, once, showed great game intelligence to kick ahead and force Glasgow back into their 22.

Leinster worked hard in all areas of the game. Indeed, it was as if they were the underdog such was their hunger. Sexton was leading the line defensively and he played the captain's role brilliantly. To limit a team of Glasgow's attacking quality to only two tries was a key factor in the win.

They were pretty comfortable in the second half. Even when they could have been vulnerable when Rob Kearney was sin-binned for contact in the air with Stuart Hogg, they never panicked. Even with the replacement front row they were able to win penalties at the scrum which allowed them to control the game until Grant Stewart got a great try for Glasgow with only four minutes to go.

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Stuart Hogg of Glasgow Warriors is tackled by Rob Kearney of Leinster resulting in a yellow card for Kearney

Leinster had a three-point lead when Ross Byrne took the resulting kick-off with only three minutes to play. Byrne kicked long and Leinster backed their defence to be able to hold Glasgow out. Given Leinster had used nearly 60 players in this competition, it was fitting and testament to Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster's faith in his squad that it was the bench that closed out the match.

I hope Leinster and the IRFU can find a way to agree terms with Rob Kearney over the course of the summer as I think he still has a huge amount to offer both his province and his country over the next few seasons — on and off the pitch. Even Leinster, with its current squad and academy production line, will find it hard to replace three players on national contracts of the quality and experience of Jack McGrath, Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney at the same time.

With Joe Schmidt due to announce a 45-man provisional World Cup squad this week he will be delighted with the way Leinster have finished the season. The silverware gathered yesterday will be great for confidence. Key men for Ireland like Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Sexton and Ringrose are back in form.

Defending the double proved to be beyond them this season. But you can be sure that the Leinster brains trust will be doing everything in their power to try and find a way not just to retain the Pro 14 again, but also to win that fifth Champions Cup and outfox Saracens who set the standard in Europe this season.

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