By Bea Asprey, Rugby World Writer
NO SOONER than Leinster had walked off the pitch after their Heineken Cup victory, than they were turning their heads to Sunday’s RaboDirect Pro12 Grand Final. Having retained the Heineken Cup, the boys in blue and their coach Joe Schmidt are now looking to do what no other Irish province has done before – win the double to become European and domestic champions.
And based on last week’s performance, would you bet against them? Given the form of Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and the Leinster scrum perhaps not. But look closer at the facts and you may not be so hasty to part with your hard-earned cash.
The last time Leinster beat the Ospreys was in January 2011, and the Welshmen have won four of their last five meetings. Furthermore, they beat Leinster in this fixture two years ago at the RDS to win the first Celtic League play-off final since 2003, and although Leinster have been in the last two Grand Finals, they have fallen short at the final hurdle each time. After succumbing to the Ospreys in 2010, Leinster’s main rivals Munster lifted the trophy in Thomond Park last year.
The Ospreys are enjoying some fine form themselves, and the three-time league winners have won their last six Pro12 games, most notably laying down the gauntlet in a 45-10 drubbing of Munster in the semi-final. Sunday will see the career of Wales legend Shane Williams come to an end, and they will be looking to send him off with a fourth title.
On the Ospreys’ other wing is RaboDirect Pro12 Try of the Season winner Hanno Dirksen, and the choice of Rhys Webb at scrum-half suggests the visitors will try and match the pace and attacking threat of Leinster. Ashley Beck accompanies Andrew Bishop in the midfield, and although their form has been impressive this term they won’t find a tougher test than the veteran partnership of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll.
One area where Leinster have failed to excel this season is in the lineout, and Leo Cullen will be joined by 6ft 11ins of Devin Toner in the second row on Sunday, who will be tasked with disrupting the Wales partnership of Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans. World Cup winner Brad Thorn, whose weight proved invaluable in the scrum against Ulster, has been selected on the bench, in one of four changes to the starting XV. Sean Cronin takes over from Richardt Strauss, and Heinke van der Merwe is named in the front row in place of Cian Healy, who will face a late fitness test due to a dead leg. Sean O’Brien drops out of the 23 altogether with a knee injury, making way for Shane Jennings.
With a host of internationals on both teams, this promises to be an exciting, high-scoring final, while it’s a good opportunity uncapped youngsters Ian Madigan, John Cooney (Leinster’s half-back replacements), Beck and one-capper Rhys Webb to boost their profiles with strong performances.
Verdict: The Ospreys are Leinster’s bogey team, but the Dubliners won’t miss this opportunity to make history. Leinster by 7.
LEINSTER v OSPREYS, RDS, SUNDAY 27 MAY, 4pm, Live on TG4/RTÉ/S4C
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Isa Nacewa; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Heinke van der Merwe, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen (capt), Devin Toner, Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy/Jack McGrath, Nathan White, Brad Thorn, Dominic Ryan, John Cooney, Ian Madigan, David Kearney.
OSPREYS: Richard Fussell; Hanno Dirksen, Andrew Bishop, Ashley Beck, Shane Williams; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Paul James, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Joe Bearman.
Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Ryan Bevington, Aaron Jarvis, James King, Tom Smith, Kahn Fotuali’i, Matthew Morgan, Tom Isaacs.
REFEREE: Romain Poite (Fra)