With Leinster finally kicking into gear ahead of Saturday’s Guinness Pro12 final with Connacht, the province’s revenge mission will be boosted by the return of Rob Kearney.
The Ireland full-back missed Friday night’s semi-final win over Ulster with an ankle injury, but is available this weekend.
There was further good news for Leinster when Isa Nacewa’s x-ray for an arm injury showed no serious damage and although Johnny Sexton sat out training yesterday with a minor glute issue, he will be okay for the clash at Murrayfield.
The mood around Leinster’s UCD base camp was relatively light yesterday after a performance against Ulster that produced the type of ruthless intent and clinical edge used to be taken for granted at the province.
Loosehead prop Jack McGrath is becoming a senior figure at Leinster now and he explained he expects the team to harness the pain of their March defeat to Connacht in the same way they used their 30-6 loss to Ulster last month to fuel their desire in the semi-final.
“We lost to these boys (Connacht) down there and there was a lot of hurt because we were so close,” McGrath said. “The game in the RDS [in January] was pretty tight and if you look at both of those games they were fairly abrasive and I don’t think anything’s going to change this weekend.”
As for the narrative that has tagged Connacht as the underdogs going into this game, McGrath is not sold. The Ireland prop says Connacht must be judged on the strength of their form and not their reputation as minnows.
“Look where they’ve come from in three years, it’s brilliant. The quality of the players and coaches that they have now is excellent,” McGrath said.
“People are talking about them being the underdogs, I don’t think that’s the case, it’s not a fluke that they’re here. They’re not up there in the try-scoring stats, defensive stats, winning stats by accident, they’ve had a winning season and they’ve got key players in key areas that have played really well.”
One of those players is Finlay Bealham, the young prop who won his first Ireland cap during the Six Nations which allowed McGrath to build up a friendship with the Connacht man.
“He’s been great. I’m quite pally with him, I got on very well with him during the Six Nations, he’s a nice guy. We’ve a lot in common and we had a bit of craic,” McGrath admitted.
“Finlay’s a very strong player, a great scrummager, skilful too, and every option they have in their front five is quite skilful and they’re quite dangerous in all areas of the park. But it’s like anything, you’re friends and when you get on to the pitch you’re not friends — that’s what happens.
“It’s the nature of competitiveness. You’re trying to get some silverware at the end of it and he’ll be doing the same against me.” This time last season McGrath and his team-mates were left training away with no games to play after they missed out on the semi-finals.
Since the knockout format was introduced, Leinster had made the final every year up until last season while previous to that they had not finished outside the top three since 2004. Finishing sixth not only prevented Leinster from defending their title in the play-offs, but it meant they were a bottom seed for the Champions Cup where the province endured a group of death this season. Matt O’Connor lost his job as head coach while the players endured a bitter summer.
“Absolutely, it was difficult. Massively difficult, for everyone all the way down,” McGrath explained.
“I remember thinking last year: ‘This is somewhere you never want to be again’. Just left in limbo, training until the middle of May with nothing to play for. So, I think everyone got a bit of a root [up the backside] at the end of last season to buck up.”
This weekend Leinster’s clear advantage over Connacht is the experience of more than a dozen players who have played and won European and PRO12 finals while the likes of Sexton and Jamie Heaslip are test-capped Lions. But McGrath, 26, says that might not count for much given how much belief Connacht are playing with right now. The trick for the Dubliner heading into his fifth final with the province is to ensure he and his team-mates stick to a familiar routine.
“Just play your own game, if you can’t get up for a final or a semi-final, you shouldn’t be here and it’s going to be no different this weekend,”
McGrath added. “It’s a week to be enjoyed but there has to be a lot of pressure put on us as well, it’s a good place to be at the moment.”
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