LEINSTER qualified for a second major final in successive weekends when they were made to work hard to overcome a stubborn Glasgow side 19-15 in the semi-final of the RaboDirect PRO12 at the RDS on Saturday evening but Munster abysmally failed to make it an all-Irish decider when they were outclassed 45-10 by the Ospreys in Swansea the previous night, writes DERMOT O’MAHONY.
And now all focus switches to London as Leinster attempt to become only the second team to successfully defend their Heineken Cup title when they take on Ulster in the first ever all Ireland final at Twickenham on Saturday (ko 5:00 pm) before a sell-out 82,000 attendance.
The holders will enter the fray as overwhelming favourites but niggling injuries to Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll, bangs that prevented the pair taking the field against Glasgow, have been added to by worrying knocks picked up by Gordon D’Arcy, Cian Healy and Eoin O’Malley.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has a reliable array of back-ups to slot in if required but I would anticipate all bar O’Malley will be in the starting line-up at English rugby HQ on Saturday.
Leinster again displayed their ability to win regardless of the obstacles thrown in front of them when they gradually overcame the team that possesses the best defensive record in the league with David Kearney’s try a quarter of an hour from the end confirming victory as Jonny Sexton’s ensuing wonderful touchline conversion stretched their lead to an impregnable 16 points.
The visitors’ late riposte that netted a pair of tries in the last four minutes was but mere consolation as the winners had relaxed somewhat at this stage in the knowledge that they’d booked their place in the Grand Final, a game that they will host against the Ospreys in the RDS on Sunday week, 27th May at 4:00 pm.
The staccato nature of Leinster’s performance will give Schmidt and his staff plenty to work on ahead of the Twickenham showdown as well as trying to solve the problems that will be posed by a revived Ulster side.
The northern province’s influential overseas contingent has reinvigorated the team and they are a decidedly better outfit now than that which bowed out a year ago to Northampton at the quarter final stage.
They beat elite French club Clermont Auvergne at home in the Pool stages before running them close in the return game in Clermont Ferrand in January, the precious losing bonus point they earned ensuring their passage to the knockout phase.
Munster were famously put to the sword in a perfectly executed smash and grab quarter final at Thomond Park in which an abrasive defence was the cornerstone of their win along with the boot of Ruan Pienaar, the South African scrum half consistently banging over long range penalty goals, a feat he repeated in their semi-final victory three weeks ago against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium.
Meanwhile Leinster are unbeaten in Europe this year as they impressively won their Pool following an early stutter in their opener away to Montpellier where Sexton had to kick a last minute penalty goal to snatch a draw.
They simply blew Cardiff away at the quarter final stage in the Aviva Stadium before passing their sternest test to date in Bordeaux as they beat Clermont Auvergne in a classically tense semi-final between the continent’s two best teams, a game in which they had to defend like dervishes throughout the final five minutes.
Leinster are going for an unprecedented third title in four years, something that would be referred to as a dynasty in American sporting parlance; if they achieve it on Saturday (at the expense of Ulster’s second crown) they would undoubtedly be regarded as the best team of all time in the fledgling history of the Heineken Cup.
I fully expect Leinster to win.