Connacht PRO12 final victory against Leinster would please the romantics

For the sporting romantics, this evening’s Guinness PRO12 final, at Murrayfield, is a no-brainer. 

They hope that plucky Connacht will make the dream a reality.

In the other corner are the pragmatists, who see today’s all-Irish dust-up, with Leinster, as the point at which class will out, when a team oozing with international quality finally comes to the boil, after a disappointing season, and stamps its authority on the noisy neighbours.

West versus east, dreams pitted against probability. 

Second-in-the-table putting it up to the top dogs. Hearts versus minds.

Connacht went about their business, this season, with heart, steel and ambition, and it is difficult not to warm to that approach, instilled by head coach, Pat Lam, and executed wonderfully by players who know what is required of them.

It has made heroes of players, many of whom have been overlooked elsewhere, and confirmed the star billing of centres, Robbie Henshaw, and New Zealand-born Bundee Aki, whose reputation, already rubber-stamped by the Pro12 players’ player of the season award, rose further in last weekend’s rousing semi-final victory over defending champions, Glasgow.

There is little sign of Connacht deviating from their form, even if it is their first final. Last week was their first semi, albeit on home turf, at the Sportsground, and it did not inhibit them. They ran from deep and offloaded to their hearts’ content. 

Why change now? 

“Just because it’s a final, you don’t really want to go into your shell, because if you go into your shell and rely on, say, ‘a Bundee or a Robbie are going to create some magic and I’ll just play solid and get through the game’, that’s not going to win us the final,” full-back, Tiernan O’Halloran, said this week.

“That’s a big thing Pat has said, this week. He’s said ‘you can’t go into our shell in a final. Just play like it’s another game. You’re going to make mistakes. 

“There’s going to be times when Leinster are going to put us under serious pressure. 

“But, again, you have to stick to your systems, and stick to what you’ve believed in all year’.

“I don’t think it’s a case that if I think there’s an offload on I’m not going to give it.

“Pat has given us that licence all year, so why would I not do it now, in a final, when it’s the highest stakes all year. 

“It’s a case of playing your own game and sticking with what you’ve done all year.”

As has been said often this season, you would be brave to bet against this Connacht side, given the bravura with which they have played, and Leinster backs-coach, Girvan Dempsey, would prefer if everyone thought that way. 

He bridles at the suggestion that the four-time league champions are favourites to make it a quintet of titles in head coach, Leo Cullen’s first season at the helm.

“No, certainly not,” said Dempsey. “I think you look at Connacht’s consistent form throughout the season, it’s been excellent. You look at the league table and it’s fitting that it’s one plays two, as the league ran out.

“But Connacht have been consistently on the attack throughout the season. They score tries and challenge you in every facet of the game, from a strong set-piece to a wide attack. 

“Defensively, you look at the last two games, against Glasgow (in the league and then the semi), and they were very strong, so they’ve obviously worked on that, so any game, especially a final, you don’t take anything for granted...it’s a final, it’s cup rugby, it’s on the day.”

No-one needs Dempsey to remind them a final is a one-off, but Leinster have been in plenty of those. 

There are three-time European Cup winners littered across their squad, who are able to pass on those lessons to less experienced team-mates, and, critically, hold things together when the going gets tough.

Connacht have veterans themselves, not least the captain, John Muldoon, now in his 13th season, while Aki has played in a significant decider, winning a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs, in 2013, and Henshaw has risen to the occasion with Ireland, when a Six Nations title has been up for grabs. 

Yet that big final experience is still lacking.

Ally that to the excitement being generated around them at home, not least after last Saturday’s semi-final victory in Galway, and it is easy to see emotions getting the better of these debutant finalists.

Lam, a Heineken Cup winner with Northampton, in 2000, disagrees, confident his players will achieve the right emotional pitch, arguing that it cannot be an issue, “when there is real clarity on what you want to do.

“A lot of the way I try to coach is my experiences as a player, and one of the things I used to love is ‘I know what I had to do, I know what we are going to do as a team’.

“I understand how we are going to do it at any given time. And we know what Leinster do and we have to say ‘how do we stop this’? 

“When we get to that point on the field, that is good. As long as you have got that, then emotion can drive that.

“If you don’t have this and it’s all emotion, then they are out there emotional, but (saying) ‘what am I doing?’

“The boys are on the same wavelength. They have just got to say one word and they all know what to do, see the situation.

“All of those experiences are what got us those key moments. We haven’t always got it right, but, then, that becomes our learning. 

“Emotion? You can’t control it. You can’t control mine. I can’t control yours. I can’t control anyone’s emotion here. 

“All you can control is where they focus it on and help them out.”

Nor, insists Lam, will Connacht be daunted by the intensity a rejuvenated Leinster brought to bear on Ulster eight days ago, in the first semi-final at the RDS.

Having started strongly, then let the visitors back into the contest at 13-12 by half-time, Cullen’s men turned on the afterburners and put Les Kiss’s side to the sword after the interval, running out 30-18 winners to maintain a 100% record in semi-finals.

Can Connacht cope with a similar onslaught?.

“That is the challenge,” Lam said. “That is the thing that is exciting. We were really impressed with what Leinster did. The whole country was and everyone is talking about it.

“That is what makes it exciting, because it’s like ‘right, that is the level, fellas, that is where we need to be at’.

“If we don’t have understanding of how we need to play, and if we don’t bring the preparation for it, we will get beaten off the park. But I think that is what we are excited about.”

So, too, are the romantics.

Guinness PRO12 final: What you need to know

SETTING THE SCENE

Pat Lam’s Connacht play in the first major final in their history having achieved their best finish in the Guinness PRO12, second place, behind table toppers Leinster.

They beat Glasgow in Galway, once in the final round and then ending the defending champions’ reign back at the Sportground in the play-off semi-finals.

Like Connacht, Leinster’s most recent defeat came in round 21, 30-6 at Ulster. Led by first-season coach Leo Cullen, they are seeking their first Pro12 triumph since 2014. They have also enjoyed a memorable Murrayfield moment, lifting their first Heineken Cup in the Scottish capital in 2009 when they beat Leicester Tigers in the final.

LEINSTER

Selection:

After a barnstorming win over Ulster in the semi-finals at the RDS last week, head coach Cullen will be forced to do without captain Isa Nacewa, who suffered an arm injury. Ireland lock Devin Toner is also missing as Cullen makes two changes.

That means a recall for fit-again Rob Kearney, who after an ankle injury, comes in at full-back in a back three alongside brother Dave and Luke Fitzgerald.

Garry Ringrose and Ben Te’o reprise their midfield partnership and the half-backs remain Eoin Reddan, playing his 14th game for Leinster, and Johnny Sexton.

Jamie Heaslip captains the side from No.8 in Nacewa’s absence in a back row that sees Jordi Murphy continuing at openside with Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier injured, and Rhys Ruddock at blindside. Toner is replaced by Ross Molony who partners former Connacht player Mick Kearney in the second row behind an Ireland Test front three of Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross. With Molony starting, Hayden Triggs comes on to the bench with scrum-half Luke McGrath set to win his 50th cap if introduced.

One to watch:

Johnny Sexton was at his majestic best last weekend as he outgunned Ulster rival Paddy Jackson and engineered an emphatic second-half performance for Leinster and he will want a repeat performance at Murrayfield.

Last time in blue:

Centre and player of the season Ben Te’o leaves Ireland this summer for England, the land of his mother’s birth, and a contract with Worcester Warriors but not before the former RL star tours Australia as one of Eddie Jones’s newest recruits. Also exiting the province is fly-half Ian Madigan, bound for Bordeaux-Begles, while prop Marty Moore is joining Wasps.

CONNACHT

Selection:

John Muldoon captains the side from No.8. Head coach Pat Lam has for the first time this season been able to name an unchanged 23 from the matchday squad which defeated defending champions Glasgow last week in Galway. Muldoon leads a back row with Eoin McKeon at blindside and Jake Heenan continuing at openside.

Ali Muldowney and Ultan Dillane are retained in the second row with Ronan Loughney continuing to deputise at loosehead prop for the injured Denis Buckley while on the other side of hooker Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham remains the go-to tighthead in Nathan White’s absence. A settled backline sees Kieran Marmion and AJ MacGinty resume their half-back partnership while Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki continue in midfield with a back three of wings Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran.

One to Watch:

Who else but PRO12 players’ player of the season, Connacht player of the year and perennial man of the match award winner Bundee Aki, the powerhouse centre who created both tries for Niyi Adeolokun last week against Glasgow.

Last time in green:

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw plays his last game for Connacht before switching in the summer to Leinster. Second row linchpin Ali Muldowney will depart for for Grenoble while fly-half AJ MacGinty is heading to Sale Sharks and prop Rodney Ah You is off to Ulster.


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