Glasgow and Leinster have dominated this season's Guinness Pro14, but only one of them can lift the trophy at Celtic Park this weekend. Rugby World previews the final
Guinness Pro14 final: Glasgow and Leinster ready for battle royale
The city of Glasgow hasn’t had a day like it. The Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Hearts at Hampden Park (3pm), followed by the Guinness Pro14 final between Glasgow Warriors and Leinster at Celtic Park (6.30pm). That’s the sporting fare on Saturday and, even though we’re unashamedly biased, it’s the rugby contest that provides the greater intrigue.
The final, being screened by Premier Sports, brings together the league’s two outstanding teams, each winning their conference during the regular season with room to spare.
Glasgow’s attacking brio was seen in all its glory in the seven-try 50-20 semi-final rout of Ulster, who had no answer to the home side’s speed of thought and clinical execution. With 86% territory and 62% possession in the first 20 minutes, Glasgow blew Ulster away from the off and their cabal of ball-players includes one of the world’s very best in Stuart Hogg, who will be making his last appearance for the Warriors before joining Exeter Chiefs.
“I get really nervous before every game and this one isn’t going to be any different,” says Hogg in an interview published by the BBC. “It’s actually worse than nerves. Sometimes I get a little bit scared. I do, genuinely. But I love it at the same time.”
The fast ruck ball and split-side attack favoured by Glasgow will present a stiffer challenge to Leinster than Munster offered in last weekend’s second semi-final. Leinster emerged 24-7 victors in Dublin and their ten line breaks in a helter-skelter game showed they carry plenty of attacking threats themselves.
The way Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong straightened the line to put Sean Cronin in for his 12th try of the season showed that ball-handling forwards will not be the preserve of Glasgow this weekend, and if Glasgow have Hogg then Leinster have James Lowe, one of three in the side to be nominated for the Pro14 Dream Team.
Lowe’s classy finish against Munster illustrated his power and Luke Fitzgerald, speaking on the Premier Sports rugby show this week, said: “He doesn’t need a huge amount of space. He’s got the ability to go round players or through them, to sidestep, he’s got that big fend. He’s just a nightmare to deal with. He has that X-factor.”
Remarkably, Leinster have had 40 different try-scorers across all competitions this season and their 97 Pro14 tries leaves even Glasgow (90) in the shade. Yet equally the final will be determined by defensive considerations, notably whether the Irish province – who are not renowned for jackal turnovers – can slow Glasgow’s ball and halt that irresistible momentum they love to generate.
As Rory Lawson pointed out, Leinster tackled high in the Heineken Cup defeat by Saracens and lost the gain-line to more powerful men. Glasgow won’t present the same problem because they aren’t a team that seeks unnecessary contact. They like the wind in their hair.
“We’re going to make sure we have a lot of fun because that’s what we’ve been doing all year,” said Warriors coach Dave Rennie. “We’re going to express ourselves because that’s the type of footie we’ve played.”
More than 43,000 tickets for the final have already been sold and it’s hoped that the attendance will not only exceed last year’s record of 46,092 – when Leinster beat the Scarlets at Aviva Stadium – but could creep past the expected 49,000 football supporters due at Hampden Park. You can buy tickets for the final here.
The final is a repeat of the 2014 clash at the RDS that Leinster won 34-12, one of their eight major trophies of the past decade.
Yet Glasgow have had the upper hand in more recent meetings, including a 39-24 away win only last month when they put in a mammoth defensive effort, Jonny Gray alone making more than 40 tackles.
This final will also be the first to be televised by Premier Sports and Chris Paterson, Martyn Williams, Shane Williams, Stephen Ferris and Jim Hamilton will be among the former internationals offering their wisdom. Ross Harries and Dougie Vipond will co-present.
Hamilton, the ex-Scotland lock, believes Glasgow will have a slight edge on Saturday. “The Warriors were fantastic last weekend. They have real momentum right now and it seems since losing that quarter-final in Europe to Saracens they’ve gone to a different level.
“I love Leinster as a team – they have such pedigree and big-game players and are incredibly resilient. It shows the quality they’ve got when they were able to raise their game last weekend to win a semi-final just a week after the European Cup final disappointment.
“But watch out for the likes of Hogg, Hastings, Price, Johnson, Seymour. For me Fraser Brown is one of the best hookers in the world right now, there’s the carrying of Matt Fagerson – the names are just rolling off the tongue. They are littered with quality.”
Unsurprisingly, Rennie sticks with the XV that beat Ulster and the match-day 23 features eight survivors from Glasgow’s successful 2015 final in Belfast.
In contrast, Leinster recall their big guns with Johnny Sexton pulling rank over Ross Byrne at fly-half and Jordan Larmour switching to the wing to accommodate Rob Kearney at full-back. There will be no fairy-tale ending for Lions back-row Sean O’Brien before he joins London Irish next season as he fails to make the 23.
The unfamiliarity of the venue for the teams could work both ways. Adam Hastings, whose running threat from outside-half is shown by the 51 defenders he scooted past in the regular season, last played on a football pitch as a schoolboy, whereas Leinster were at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park just a fortnight ago.
Performing at Celtic’s famous citadel could inspire Glasgow or it could paralyse them. Sean Holley, Rugby World’s analyst and another of the Premier Sports team, believes experience will hold sway. “You back against Leinster at your peril. The pressure is on Glasgow and they’re not used to being in big finals.”
While he plumps for a Leinster victory, Paddy Wallace had little hesitation in going the other way after watching the destruction of Ulster at Scotstoun last week.
“Based on that performance, I think Glasgow will be too strong,” said the former Ireland centre. “They look sensational in all areas of their game. Their defence, their kicking game and their attacking game are second to none, so I see Glasgow winning at home.”
It’s that sort of game – one to divide opinion. Let’s hope it’s a cracker.
Glasgow Warriors: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Kyle Steyn, Sam Johnson, DTH van der Merwe; Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Jamie Bhatti, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Rob Harley, Callum Gibbins (capt), Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: 16 Grant Stewart, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Ryan Wilson, 20 Tom Gordon, 21 George Horne, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Huw Jones.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour; Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Scott Fardy, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Bryan Byrne, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Referee: Nigel Owens. TMO: Ian Davies (both Welsh Rugby Union).