Stars align for Leinster’s fairytale finale

IT WAS James Lowe who voiced what everyone at Leinster must have been thinking last weekend when, with Munster beaten, he suggested that the stars might be aligning for a fairytale ending with today’s Guinness PRO14 final.

Stars align for Leinster’s fairytale finale

The Kiwi was referring specifically to his compatriot Isa Nacewa. The Leinster club captain, legend, cultural totem and a supreme master of all trades across two spells with the club, rides off into retirement whatever happens this evening.

But that is just one string to what could be a very tidy bow.

See off reigning champions Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium and the recently crowned European champions will become the first side from what was the old Celtic League to secure the double and, while they’re at it, cap a Grand Slam-winning season for Irish rugby.

That they get to attempt it at the Aviva Stadium, on what is expected to be a warm and sun-kissed evening, is all the better. Leinster haven’t lost at the stadium in eight attempts, stretching back to a European pool encounter with Toulon in December 2015.

It’s a shot at history that has been given added weight by the returns of Nacewa, Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy from injuries this week. The one downer is Robbie Henshaw’s failure to recover in time but even that was expected.

The net effect is a XV of outrageous strength and a bench with a serious forward arsenal that includes an Irish international front row, Scott Fardy and Jordi Murphy. The replacement backs are less stellar but Joey Carbery does cover a number of bases.

The collective muscle memory when it comes to games of this import is enormous. As has been written here before, Leinster have employed all manner of styles and tactics in getting jobs done and building this impressive monument of a campaign.

Against that is a Scarlets side that knows what it is to beat them at the RDS — and Munster in a league decider at the Aviva — and one boosted by the return from injury of Leigh Halfpenny who missed last week’s semi-final win in Glasgow.

Halfpenny has been worth an average of 18 points per game this season with his big boot but more pertinent perhaps is the loss of Scottish captain John Barclay, who ruptured his Achilles in Scotstoun eight days ago.

A loss in his own right, his absence has a significant ripple effect. It has prompted a switch from lock to No 8 for Tadhg Beirne, the Munster-bound Irishman whose ability to turn ball over at the ruck has given opponents so many headaches and Joe Schmidt with no option but to bring him to Australia next month.

“It doesn’t change things drastically because [Aaron] Shingler does a lot of the lineout calling for them from six and obviously, as the lock, that frees him up from that responsibility,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. “That’s the way it certainly appears to be.

“Maybe it’s about beefing up their second row a bit more as well, a slightly heavier pack potentially. It looks like he has a slightly heavier pack anyway with [Lewis] Rawlins and [Steve] Cummins in the second row.”

The problem for Scarlets is that the overall product has been lessened. Rawlins and Cummins are decent players, but not at the level of Devin Toner and James Ryan and the eight replacements pale in comparison to the talent Leinster can deliver as a second wave.

It’s only five weeks since Leinster avenged last season’s PRO12 semi-final loss to the Welsh region with a thunderous 38-16 win that took them to Bilbao and the brink of European success and the key to victory — the breakdown — remains the same now as then.

Leinster targeted Beirne mercilessly last month with Scarlets boss Wayne Pivac paying tribute yesterday to the province’s physicality at the breakdown, their body height in the tackle, support lines and the bloody-mindedness of their up-the-gut runs.

And, like Pivac, Cullen has highlighted the need to grab the early momentum.

“It’s making sure you’re not playing into their hands in the first place. We played into their hands [in] the semi-final last year. Watching that Glasgow semi-final [last week] I thought: ‘whoa, that looks like something that happened to us in the past!’

“It was a mirror image almost: the first three quick tries and 21 points. Trying to chase the game against that kind of defence is tough. And how do you try and go about doing that? Yeah, definitely, it was a stark reminder of what that looked like.”

If there is a concern over Leinster then it is in the spectre of fatigue.

Racing 92 and Munster were seen off this last two weekends by a combined total of four points and if Scarlets can kickstart their dynamic and expansive game plan then the province’s legs and mental reserves will be stretched to the full.

Leinster doubles have been dashed twice before on the back of European titles — in 2011 and again the following year. Third time would be far from a charm.

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