IF THERE IS one team in the RaboDirect Pro12 who Leinster could not muster up some complacency for, it’s the Neath Swansea Ospreys.
Isa Nacewa calls them Leinster’s ‘bogey team’, who have already ‘pumped’ them by a scoreline of 27-3 early this season.
When the Welsh amalgam came to the RDS in March – with a full house expecting to lay out the red carpet for the arrival of Brad Thorn and the the return of Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll – they dominated the Heineken Cup champions at scrum and line-out.
The eastern province will be greatly improved at both set-pieces on Sunday.
The line-out; through ever more settling in from Thorn and sheer hard work and persistence from Cullen and Kevin McLaughlin. The scrum is likely to feature Heinke van der Merwe once again as Cian Healy is an injury doubt. But Mike Ross will be in situ, in stark contrast to the sight of young loose head, Jack McGrath, who finished the last meeting between the sides at tight head.
That breathless March encounter brought a large slice of fortune for the Ospreys, Dan Biggar’s late conversion hit the very top, tip of the post and was eventually ruled valid for the Ospreys to win 23-22. Fine margins.
However, both Joe Schmidt and Steve Tandy will tell you that this game will be a completely different battle. Before they contest a set-piece, the breakdown battle will also hold the key.
Justin Tipuric has been in sensational form as a ‘traditional seven’. While his fellow back-rowers Ryan Jones and Joe Bearman will provide a stern test for McLaughlin, Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings. Leinster’s impact will be somewhat diminished in this area with the emergence of Sean O’Brien as a major doubt following a knee operation.
Should O’Brien not make it, Dominic Ryan looks set to be rewarded with a place on the bench.
Sunday will mark Leinster’s third consecutive Magners/ Pro12 final. So motivation will stem from the annoyance of previous defeat – including a 2010 loss to the same opposition at the same venue – on top of the prospect of and unprecedented double.
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The 2010 champions, like Ulster in the Heineken Cup, go into this game having greatly impressed by knocking out Munster. Tandy is in no doubt that another step up in class is required, telling the league website:
“We did give the ball up too easily on our exits and we did put ourselves under some unnecessary pressure against them (Munster), which I think that we would be punished for against Leinster. We’ll definitely be looking to take care of the ball a lot better.
“We’ve had two weeks to prepare and the boys are in good shape. That is the standard that we set ourselves and we all know that we need to be at that standard or even greater to get the result that we need on Sunday.”
While Tandy has been targeting the final for a fortnight, the challenge for Schmidt is to pick his players up after their exertions in Twickenham and refocus them for the job in hand. Nacewa revealed during the week that himself, Brian O’Driscoll and several others all reported for recovery sessions a day after winning the Heineken Cup.
With the Kiwi in harness alongside at least one of the Kearney brothers, both outfits boast hugely exciting outside backs. Not least among them, will be Shane Williams. Wales’ record try-scorer will be playing his final game of professional rugby at the RDS and will be intent on signing off in style.
Leinster (probable): R Kearney; D Kearney, O’Driscoll, McFadden, Nacewa, Sexton, Reddan: Van der Merwe, Strauss, Ross; Cullen, Thorn; McLaughlin, Jennings, Heaslip.
Ospreys (probable): Fussell; Dirksen, Bishop, Beck, Williams; Biggar, Fotuali’i: James, Hibbard, A Jones; AW Jones, Evans; R Jones, Tipuric, Bearman.
Verdict: Leinster 26 – 20 Ospreys