Believe it or not, only six months have passed since the last Pro14 final where Leinster defeated Ulster at an empty Aviva stadium to secure their seventh league title. Now, just six months on, Leinster have a chance to win a fourth (yes, a fourth) Pro14 title in a row at the RDS! What an achievement that would be, and an incredible legacy for this Leinster squad to develop. The only thing that stands in their way is an old enemy from down south. Munster lie in wait and have their eyes on their first piece of silverware in 10 years!
Now, if you were to read too much of what the media has to say in the build up to this match (and I have), you would feel that a Munster victory is a forgone conclusion to the majority of our
biased Irish pundits. It’s not an unfamiliar thing, after all the same pundits felt that Leinster would lose the last three Pro14 finals. Nothing has changed this year as it’s Leinster who will set out yet again to spoil the party and deny glory to the other team. Yes, it’s rugby pantomime season, and Leinster is again stars as the villain, and this time Munster is the damsel in distress! Check out the Premier Sports and Eir Sport build-up ads, you’ll see what I mean. Needless to say, the ABL brigade are still in high spirits and rearing to go despite the times we live in. All that being said, it makes sense to create a deeper narrative to these finals in order to feed the masses.
Leinster has appeared to prioritise the Heineken Cup over the league in the past and it’s unfortunately showed following some of the results in previous finals where we fell to our opponents; 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2016. Thankfully, they are now clearly motivated to compete for both cups every year, and this has resulted in total domination of the league over the last few years while getting us to two Champions Cup finals since 2018.
This year however is a very tricky time for all teams who have ambitions of domestic and European glory. The global pandemic has ravaged the league calendar and shortened the number of regular season games as a result. Equally in the Champions Cup, only two pool games were played in each pool as opposed to 6, and the top 16 now move straight into the knockout stages. As a result of all this, the turnaround times for big games are as tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm! To put into context, remember it’s just been one week since Ireland defeated England on the final day of the 6 Nations. Only one week later, we now face into a Pro14 final where a lot of international players must scramble back to their clubs and get back into their club systems. Only six days after the final tomorrow, Leinster will face Toulon in the Champions Cup, followed by an away quarter final one week later if successful. So three huge games in 3 weeks. This will surely impact preparations for tomorrow on both sides, but more so Leinster who are trying to integrate 20 internationals back into their squad. It’s certainly a tough task to get that done effectively, but given that there’s a Pro14 title on the line, the players might up their game to get back into the flow of things quicker than expected.
The enormity of tomorrow’s game cannot be understated. Munster will be looking to end their trophy drought and prove to themselves and their supporters that they can deliver on the big stage where they have come up short far too many times in recent years. They will also be saying goodbye to CJ Stander and Billy Holland who will both retire from the club this year. The departure of two of their most valued players will undoubtedly be a source of motivation for their squad. Apart from all that, they are playing against their closest rival Leinster who have beaten them 11 out of the last 12 times they’ve met, and could create a record of beating them a record 6 times in a row! Needless to say, they have a lot of things to motivate them going into this final and they will be looking to right some wrongs from the past.
The current champions on the other hand also have some motivation going into this game. Essentially, Leinster have a massive hunger to lift trophies every year, they measure their success solely on the final day of season year on year. They will want to create more records for their club and set up a drive-for-five next season. Of course, they too want to get the upper hand on their rivals Munster and win the ultimate bragging rights. Remember, if Leinster win, it’s pretty much business as usual for all concerned. But if Munster win, we’ll NEVER hear the end of it, the occasion will go straight into legend and statues of Peter O’Mahony will be erected in the four corners of Ireland, sponsored by the Ex-Munster Player Journalist & Pundit committee. Google ‘statue of Paul O’Connell’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Here is the Pro14 final team selection from Cullen & Co:
15. Hugo Keenan (24)
14. Jordan Larmour (54)
13. Rory O’Loughlin (79)
12. Robbie Henshaw (53)
11. Dave Kearney (164)
10. Ross Byrne (97)
9. Luke McGrath (144) CAPTAIN
1. Cian Healy (226)
2. Rónan Kelleher (19)
3. Andrew Porter (71)
4. Devin Toner (261)
5. Scott Fardy (74)
6. Rhys Ruddock (185)
7. Josh van der Flier (91)
8. Jack Conan (100)
16. James Tracy (124)
17. Ed Byrne (64)
18. Tadhg Furlong (109)
19. Ross Molony (111)
20. Ryan Baird (19)
21. Jamison Gibson-Park (99)
22. Johnny Sexton (171)
23. James Lowe (49)
What a whopper of a team. The matchday squad is made up of 100% internationals, I think that’s the first time I’ve seen this! It’s the strongest selection that Cullen could make, which shows how much hunger and motivation they have to win another Pro14 title.
Following full 80 minute performances across all 5 Six Nations games for Ireland, Hugo Keenan will return at 15, with Larmour and Kearney on his left and right wings. Ringrose picked up an injury during Ireland duty so the center partnership will take the form of O’Loughlin and the returning Henshaw who was in sublime form for Ireland and man of the match against England last weekend. Ross Byrne has been given the nod at out-half with Luke Mc Grath captaining the side at scrum half. The pack is simply a thing of beauty, maximum power and strength which should give them the edge in the scrum and forward battle; Healy, Kelleher, Porter, enough said!
Most notably on the bench, we have Furlong who was outstanding for Ireland and will be a major impact sub for the boys in blue. Ryan Baird too who is enjoying some incredible form lately and will continue to be a handful to the opposition when brought on. If that’s not enough, we have Gibson-Park who will keep up the high tempo if brought on to replace Mc Grath. Also, James Lowe will be a huge shot to the arm for the Leinster team when brought on, his explosiveness in contact and ability to create space (and tries) from nowhere makes him a very powerful weapon in Leinster’s arsenal. And finally, to top it all off, we have Johnny Sexton ready to come on to keep the ship steady and inject more energy into the squad. Others on the bench are Tracy, Molony and Byrne who have all performed excellently throughout the regular season fixtures and have very much earned their places in the matchday 23. A very special mention regarding Devin Toner who will become the highest capped player ever for Leinster when he reaches 262 games tomorrow! What an achievement.
All in all, it’s a very strong selection with threats all over the field. The only worry is the short turnaround time that the majority of these lads have had to switch off from Ireland duty and back into Leinster mode. Generally, we would see internationals return to Leinster around two weeks after the conclusion of the 6 Nations and even then there might be a bit of rustiness throughout the team. Let’s hope that these lads will not be too far off their top form, maybe it will actually be an advantage given that they didn’t get a week off to completely switch off from rugby. My personal opinion is that they will show up and perform to a very high standard given that this is a final after all and it’s against a team they will be hugely motivated to beat. Coupled with the fact that it’s in the RDS, there’ll be enough reasons to step up and show up on the day, even without the crowd behind them.
Munster too have selected their strongest team. Particular mention to Carbery who will start his second game for Munster following over a year on the sideline due to injury. Tadgh Beirne could also will be a massive issue for Leinster, his form for Ireland was incredible. Conor Murray will also be togging out while CJ Stander will be very much looking to sign off from his rugby career with a huge win and a potential first winners medal over his time at Munster. He will absolutely put everything into his final game, keep a close eye on him!
Where the game will be won
Munster has shown throughout this season that they are an 80 minute team. They know how to ride out storms and scrape out wins at the death. They never lack energy and generally have the ability to shift up one or two gears at crucial times in a match. Their overall game can be predictable in how they approach a match, but can become unpredictable at certain times which allow them to create space and score. You really cannot take your eye off them, even with a big lead, take the Clermont away game for example. Leinster should analyse that match in particular as it was a perfect example of Munster’s never give up attitude that won them a game that they probably never looked like winning.
Leinster will need to put out a solid 80 minute performance, something which they have struggled to do at times. Leinster generally come out the blocks all guns blazing but can go a little off the boil in the second half, sometimes forgivable given that they often rack up massive leads and take the foot off the gas slightly when the scoreboard is safe. If they drop their performance levels against Munster, I feel that Leinster could be in for a massive shock, one that they mightn’t be able to overcome.
For some reason, Leinster’s free flowing and energetic rugby style takes a back seat against Munster, and instead they deploy a more crash-and-bash style which in my opinion probably suits Munster and their style of play. I think Leinster will need to stick to what has worked for them throughout the season, imposing their game on Munster and looking to build a strong lead on the scoreboard. Reverting back to their typical approach against Munster is what in my opinion has led to the very tight scorelines over the last few meetings. The only time over the last 5 meetings is the 2019 semi-final where Leinster deployed their more familiar expansive gameplan which resulted in a 24-9 win.
Leinster will need to be very protective at the ruck as Beirne has made a name for himself at stealing so many balls from that position. He poached two successive balls from our ruck deep inside Munster’s 22 during the last time we played. He’s just too quick and skillful over the ball and if he’s given half a chance, he’ll secure penalties all day long.
The lineout will be an area where you feel Munster will have an advantage and will look to dominate. Peter O’Mahony will be on hand to thwart the Leinster hooker and jumpers so a strong lineout will be needed each and every time.
Leinster will need to keep Stander at bay too, he will do everything in his final appearance to secure a victory for his side.
The pack could decide the outcome of the game, there’s huge quality on both sides that if given the front foot for long periods could prove very costly. If Leinster’s pack get the upper hand, it could be devastating for Munster given the bench that Leinster will be able to unleash.
This is a final, not a normal run of the mill Leinster v Munster fixture. The intensity of a final will bring out the best of some players, and the worst out of others, such is the impact that the occasion can have on a player and a team. An empty stadium may nullify some of the matchday jitters somewhat and level the playing field in terms of home advantage, but heads will need to be screwed on tight as it’s a massive opportunity for these two teams to create history. I think the occasion may negatively impact some of the Munster players more than Leinster’s, due to their desire to do justice for Stander by sending him off on a high, and also the immense pressure on Munster to actually win something in such a long time.
Knowing how Leinster generally build up to and execute their game plans in finals, I don’t see them losing this game. They will have believed they can get to the final for a long time now and will be mentally prepared. However, the journey to that trophy lift will have some ups and downs for the first 30-60 minutes of play. Leinster will take 15-20 minutes to get into the swing of things which is expected given the short turnaround from Ireland to Leinster camp, but once they do, they will dominate the key exchanges and build a lead. I don’t expect Munster to let up one bit so the scoreline may be tight until the benches are well and truly emptied, at which point I believe Leinster will pull further ahead. My cheeky final prediction is that Dave Kearney will score the first try of the match, and Lowe will score the match winning try in the second half. Bring on another title and another celebration for the boys in blue.
Leinster 29 – Munster 19
Match day result: Leinster 16 – Munster 6