Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Leinster can leave Euro heartache behind in Celtic Park'
THE double-double collapsed under the weight of a Saracens surge – now Leinster look to salvage the end of a fine season by retaining their Guinness PRO14 title.
Leo Cullen’s side define themselves by their European success, but their record in this tournament is unequalled. This evening, they’ll play their ninth final and victory would deliver their sixth title.
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As the de facto away team at Celtic Park, this would be one of their most impressive wins.
Johnny Sexton’s assessment that it’s 23 v 40,000 may have been a slight exaggeration, but a combination of Celtic reaching today’s Scottish Cup final to drive up the price of flights and the proximity to their defeat in Newcastle a fortnight ago will surely limit the number of travelling fans.
Still, this is a fitting finale to the 2018/’19 season. Dave Rennie’s Glasgow Warriors earned their place here by topping Conference A and hammering Ulster in the semi-final, with Leinster racing off with Conference B and comprehensively dismissing Munster last weekend.
So, the two best teams meet at an inspiring new venue and if that wasn’t enough spice the normally taciturn Cullen inadvertently stoked the home fires in this combustible city with his remarks about the Warriors being Rangers fans at heart.
His tongue was in cheek when he called on Celtic fans to back his team last weekend, but his cheeks were red at the pre-match press conference as he felt compelled to apologise to whomever he’d offended.
In this combustible football city, much of the focus is on Neil Lennon’s Hoops’ attempt at the treble-treble, but the PRO14 expect around 45,000 fans to make their way to Parkhead all the same.
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Given Glasgow’s capacity at Scotstoun is around 10,000, it’s an impressive crowd.
Two weeks ago, Leinster’s fans were in the ascendancy at St James’ Park and their players and coaches have enthused about the welcome they received when getting off the bus in Newcastle, but this is a different proposition.
And it sounds like they’re relishing the prospect of going into the Lion’s Den.
“We have to try and cherish that, don’t we?” Johnny Sexton said. “Saracens are a great example over the years of a team that have thrived in other teams’ back gardens. We need to try and take a little bit of that into tomorrow.
“It’ll be 23 of us against probably 40,000. I don’t know how many Leinster fans will make it over having put their hands in their pockets to come to Newcastle. We probably let them down there a little bit and want to repay them. It’ll be a tough challenge for us, but one we’re looking forward to.”
That challenge is a different one to what they faced two weeks ago, but it is still a formidable one.
Glasgow do not have the same calibre of ball-carrier that Saracens do, but they do have a relentlessly positive approach to the game; one underlined by a commitment to winning the physical battle.
In the coaching box, they have one of the most respected figures in the game and a man who won back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the unfashionable Chiefs of Waikato, Dave Rennie.
They are an opponent to be respected. On home soil and with Stuart Hogg playing his last match before his post-World Cup move to Exeter Chiefs, they have no shortage of motivation.
Last season, Leinster beat the Warriors twice in Europe, taking them on directly and winning the physical exchanges.
The Blues have come back to the pack a little in the year and a bit since, while Glasgow took their lessons and improved.
With showers forecast, Rennie is expecting a bruising game.
“You might see a little bit more kicking. We are not going to change. I don’t think Leinster will change either,” he said.
“They are very good at hanging onto the ball and prepared to go an inch at a time and are prepared to ask questions. We have to hunt well.
“It is a hell of a lot easier to defend three or four phases and try and steal one rather than defend for 30 odd.
“They have slick starter-moves over the first two or three phases so we have done a fair bit of work round that. I am sure they will have other things up their sleeve.
“They are certainly prepared to play up our end of the field. It is the two best sides in the competition. Both sides won both sides of the draw so it is a fitting final between two positive sides. Should be a hell of an occasion.
“We pride ourselves on our brutality, so do they. There will be some sore bodies.”
As ever, the battle for possession will be key. Josh van der Flier’s capacity to back up last week’s lung-bursting effort will be central to Leinster’s capacity to gain control.
“Quick ball is essential for us,” Rennie said. “So, our ability to carry well, win races and eliminate threats quickly can put them under pressure.
“They will have a mindset of wanting to get on the ball quickly and slow it down.”
Glasgow won at the RDS a few weeks ago, but the Leinster front-liners were watching from the stand. That was impressive performance and the boys in blue will be forewarned about the myriad of threats in Rennie’s locker.
They will look to pressure the coltish out-half Adam Hastings and make sure his supply of ball is disrupted.
And, when they get their own chances, they will be determined to learn from their loss to Saracens and take the right decisions.
For all that Glasgow are a worthy opponent, Leinster are the best team in the PRO14.
Last season, they produced one of their best displays of the season on the final day to blow Scarlets away. If they can do the same in Celtic’s home venue, they can silence the local crowd and retain their title.