Leinster have that double vision


EVEN IN the midst of making history last Saturday, Leinster players were already talking about today’s final. Having missed out on the double last season, they have been eyeing up this one for a while. Double vision, as it were.

Leinster are bidding to become just the fifth side, and the first since London Wasps in 2004, to become European and domestic champions in the same season, something they came within a game of achieving last season. The defeat to Munster on the corresponding weekend rankled, though, as Joe Schmidt conceded yesterday, Munster had won the league by 13 points.

“They did almost exactly the same as we’ve done this year, I think we’ve lost three games in the league and I think they’ve done the same thing so it was pretty hard to say they were never deserving winners in the same way we were disappointed to lose.”

By extension therefore, having finished 10 points clear of the Ospreys, to miss out this time would be even more disappointing.

Re-affirming his excitement about the new challenges ahead for next season, whatever about longer term, Schmidt quipped: “When the weather’s like this, it’s pretty hard to give up Ireland.” Pausing, for effect, he added: “Both days of it!”

Hence, 11 of the starting XV for last week’s Heineken Cup final victory pitch up again. Seán O’Brien elevated his semi-final effort to another level in the final, but he has had to undergo a minor knee operation akin to Brian O’Driscoll’s, and therefore is expected to be fit for the first Test against the All Blacks.

Cian Healy, unique in the propping fraternity in having scored tries in both the semi-final and final of the Heineken Cup, is unlikely to even make the bench due to a dead leg.

Heinke van der Merwe – huge off the bench in his last three games – and Shane Jennings, who is also in a rich vein of form, are pretty handy replacements. Although any team would miss such dynamic carriers, their absence may partially have contributed to Joe Schmidt’s other two changes – with the promotion of Seán Cronin especially and Devin Toner (thus ensuring Brad Thorn’s final appearance will be off a strong bench) giving them some ballast. The backline is unchanged.

Romain Poite is an interesting choice as referee. He certainly leaves no one in any doubt as to who is the boss, but he is a much improved referee. He does, admittedly, tend to favour whichever scrum is on top, however they go about it, and like many French officials can be somewhat laissez-faire at the breakdown.

This is possibly more likely to favour the Ospreys, who as Joe Schmidt noted yesterday are almost as comfortable without the ball as with it. Two of their tries when winning at the RDS last March were off turnover ball, as were three of their five tries in the semi-final rout of Munster.

As Schmidt also noted yesterday Justin Tipuric is a remarkably effective performer in fastening onto the ball as first man in and in positioning his body over the ball, although the Leinster coach also made reference to the young openside’s tendency to go off his feet which in turn has led to five yellow cards this season.

Everything about the Ospreys’ past and recent achievements suggests the league couldn’t have thrown up a better final than the top two, and that Leinster couldn’t be facing tougher opposition.

The Ospreys are chasing a record fourth League crown and arrive in Dublin in the most dangerous mindset of any Welsh side, uber confident, having won their last six matches. They seem to particularly relish Irish opposition, having lost just once in nine meetings with Irish teams this season and that by only a point at Ravenhill on February 24th.

Amid the criticisms of Munster there was insufficient recognition of the Welsh team’s superb opportunism in their 45-10 win. The only change from that line-up sees Rhys Webb rotate with Kahn Fotuali’i, and as Webb’s five league tries indicate, this most likely will mean a greater sniping threat around the fringes.

The days of the galacticos and offloading rugby have abated a little, for as Leo Cullen also noted yesterday the Ospreys have had a renewed focus on their set-pieces in the second half of the season. But they still have a couple of very good target runners and tall offloaders in Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop, and sharp finishers.

They have won four of their last five clashes with Leinster, whose win last weekend only makes them a bigger scalp for a well-rested Ospreys side who will be desperate to send Shane Williams off into the sunset in style.

Of course, all of this also gives Leinster even more scores to settle, and they have both the work-rate in defence, and in their unrelentingly high tempo recycling game, to make history.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, I Nacewa, J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, S Cronin, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Toner, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: R Strauss, C Healy/J McGrath, N White, B Thorn, D Ryan, J Cooney, I Madigan, D Kearney.

OSPREYS: R Fussell; H Dirksen, A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar, R Webb; P James, R Hibbard, A Jones, A Wyn Jones (Capt), I Evans, R Jones, J Tipuric, J Bearman. Replacements: S Baldwin, R Bevington, A Jarvis, J King, T Smith, K Fotuali’i, M Morgan, T Isaacs.

Referee: Romain Poite (FFR).

Last six meetings: (09-10) Leinster 20 Ospreys 16; (final) Leinster 12 Ospreys 17; (10-11) Ospreys 19 Leinster 15; Leinster 15 Ospreys 11; (11-12) Ospreys 27 Leinster 3; Leinster 22 Ospreys 23.

Leading try scorers: Leinster – Ian Madigan 7, Leo Auva’a, Fionn Carr 5 each. Ospreys – Hanno Dirksen 6, Rhys Webb 5.

Leading points scorers: Leinster – Isa Nacewa 120, Jonathan Sexton 95, Ian Madigan 95. Ospreys – Dan Biggar 241.

Betting (Paddy Powers): 4/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 12/5 Ospreys. Handicap odds (Ospreys +7pts) Evens Leinster, 18/1 Draw, Evens Ospreys.

Forecast: Leinster to win.