Scarlets clash offers intrigue as Leinster book final berth
No matter who won yesterday's cracking Guinness Pro14 semi-final, they would have had a tailor-made story for next Saturday against Scarlets at the Aviva. A year ago, on a lovely, sunny evening at the RDS, the Welsh side ran Leinster off the park. And then did the same a week later to Munster.
So Leinster, who blitzed Scarlets in the Champions Cup semi-final last month, are the ones with the opportunity to straighten out the Pro14 record. They were put to the pin of their collar yesterday in a 16-15 win by a Munster side who reopened the debate after the arguments seemed done and dusted. But they couldn't quite get the last word in.
The result made for different send-offs to two great players. For Simon Zebo, it was his last game in red at any venue - well for the foreseeable, as he heads off to Racing soon - while for Isa Nacewa it was his last at the RDS. And possibly his last in blue, for the calf injury that made him a doubtful starter yesterday came back to haunt him. He is hopeful of being fit to face Scarlets but no more than that, but did well to get to half-time. "He's a different animal to anyone I've come across before," Leo Cullen said of him.
There are no fitness doubts about James Lowe, however, and it's unlikely Cullen has come across his like either. He is box-office, on and off the field, a huge personality who will add tremendous value wherever he goes. "It's exciting - it was good rugby; it was semi-final rugby; it was awesome," said Lowe.
So was he. In a man-of-the-match performance that had a bit of everything, bar a try for himself, he got things going with the way he opened the door for Jack Conan for the opening try of the game. Then he slammed it shut when Munster were trying to go the length of the field to save the game.
Having missed out on the European final last weekend, Lowe was always going to be up for this, in which case odds of 12/1 to be man of the match seemed attractive. Conan, too, was another who gave Leinster something else thanks to having fresher legs.
"Yeah, we talked about it before, the mental and physical toll that playing these big games takes is enormous," Cullen said afterwards. "So it was important that we did freshen things up. A couple of guys came in who were unlucky probably not to be picked the previous week as well. They came in and did well."
With what looked like a reasonable day on the injury front for Cullen and Joe Schmidt - who announces his Ireland squad in midweek - Leinster are well set for a double. In 2013, they lifted the European Challenge Cup and Pro12 in the same season, a send-off to Schmidt. Going one step higher will appeal to Cullen.
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