Leinster are both hunters and hunted as they chase sixth title
Scene is set at Celtic Park for historic final between high-calibre attacking sides
Josh Van Der Flier at the Leinster Rugby captain’s run in Celtic Park, Glasgow on Friday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Pro14 final: Glasgow Warriors v Leinster
Kick-off: 6.30pm, Saturday. Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 5.45pm. On TV: Live on TG4/Eir Sport/Premier Sport
When it comes to the trophy-harvesting time of the season, Leinster are the ultimate big-game hunters, and today they’ll be seeking their sixth title in this competition. But as they’ve discovered all season, they are also the hunted ones and so it will be until the very end.
Glasgow may not be playing on the home artificial surface where they’ve won 20 of their last 22 matches in the Guinness Pro14, but the fates have conspired to give them a home city final. With the vast majority of the 45,000 or so supporting them, as Johnny Sexton noted on Friday, this is arguably the biggest game in their history, and, despite the forecast showers, the setting is set for two attack-minded, high-calibre outfits.
“I think if you go by the season, both teams love to play,” said Sexton after Leinster’s captain’s run. “Glasgow play from everywhere, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ball-in-play time. Every time we’ve played them to now, even in the RDS a few weeks ago, a lot of ball-in-play time; both teams going at each other and obviously, with the atmosphere, it’s a massive occasion, isn’t it?
“I think for Glasgow, it’s the biggest occasion they’ve had, probably ever, really, when you look at it. A home final in Celtic Park? It’s incredible. It’s up there for us as well. There’s a big affiliation between Celtic and Ireland, and a lot of us would have grown up watching games here and dreaming to play here, and it’s great to get the chance to do it. Once in a lifetime I think is what I’m really trying to say.”
Tiptoeing carefully and with trademark dryness around the rather sensitive topic hereabouts of footballing allegiances, when asked if he was a Celtic fan, Sexton smiled and said: “I don’t know. I don’t want to stoke any fires again. I’ll have to give a statement before the game tomorrow.”
But there’s little doubt that whatever motivation some Leinster players may have, assuredly the Warriors would love nothing more than to lift the trophy in this stadium.
With Seán O’Brien denied a farewell appearance in a Leinster jersey after a dozen seasons’ exceptional service due to a hip problem, he and Devin Toner thus join Dan Leavy and several backs on the sidelines.
As well as Sexton, the fit-again Rob Kearney is recalled for what could conceivably be his final appearance in Leinster blue, although Leo Cullen remains “hopeful” that the full-back will be re-signed. His brother Dave misses out as Jordan Larmour reverts to the wing, while Scott Fardy starts and the fit-again Ross Molony is on the bench in the absence of Toner, a concern given Glasgow’s success in targeting the Ulster throw.
With nine successive wins in this competition, they also have momentum. As well as big carriers and a potent maul, Glasgow have a brilliantly inventive running game, witness an average of five tries and 39 points in the last eight of those wins, and, as demonstrated against Ulster, they have a heads-up antenna for finding space through their passing or kicking game.
If it does rain, that is possibly more liable to suit Sexton and Leinster than Adam Hastings and Glasgow
On a line through Saracens, Leinster extended the European champions far more than Glasgow did in three meetings, and certainly the last two. They will seek to augment their customary ball retention with a sharp defensive line-speed a la Saracens, and to impose themselves physically on Glasgow.
That win over Munster showed the pain of that defeat by Saracens has revived their hunger for more silverware – and if it does rain, that is possibly more liable to suit Sexton and Leinster than Adam Hastings and Glasgow.
“It might be a bit of rain tomorrow and a bit greasy on top,” ventured Rennie. “You might see a little bit more kicking. We are not going to change. I don’t think Leinster will change either. They are very good at hanging onto the ball and prepared to go an inch at a time and are prepared to ask questions.
We pride ourselves on our brutality and so do they. So there will be some sore bodies
“We have to hunt well. It is a helluva lot easier to defend three or four phases and try and steal one rather than defend for 30-odd. They have slick starter moves over the first two or three phases, so we have done a fair bit of work round that. I am sure they will have other things up their sleeve.
“It is the two best sides in the competition. Both sides won both sides of the draw so it is a fitting final between two positive sides. It should be a hell of an occasion. We pride ourselves on our brutality and so do they. So there will be some sore bodies.”
This will also have ripple effects into the first competitive game of next season, namely the World Cup pool opener between the two countries.
Glasgow, with one title, are less proven in such occasions. As well as winning the 2007-08 title by dint of that quaint old method of finishing first, Leinster have won four of the eight finals they’ve contested.
All of those were won in Dublin, whereas this looks almost as challenging as the final in 2011 in Thomond Park. Thus, to win here would arguably make this the most prized of all.
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: Grant Stewart, Oli Kebble, Siua Halanukonuka, Ryan Wilson, Tom Gordon, George Horne, Pete Horne, Huw Jones.
LEINSTER RUGBY: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour; Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Scott Fardy, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Max Deegan, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 180th Championship game).
Overall Guinness PRO14 head-to-head record: Played 36, Warriors won 13, Leinster won 21 with 2 games drawn.
Last two seasons: (2017-18) (HCC) Glasgow 18 Leinster 34. (Pro14) Glasgow 31 Leinster 21. (HCC) Leinster 55 Glasgow 19. (2018-19) Leinster 24 Glasgow 39.
Leading try-scorers: Glasgow – George Horne 9, Tommy Seymour 8, Nikola Matawalu 6. Leinster – James Lowe, Sean Cronin 7 each, Bryan Byrne, Max Deegan and Conor O’Brien 6 each.
Leading points scorers: Glasgow – Adam Hastings 116. Leinster – Ross Byrne 93.
Betting (Paddy Power): 13/8 Glasgow, 18/1 Draw, 4/7 Leinster. Handicap odds (Glasgow +4pts) Evens Glasgow, 18/1 draw, Evens Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.