Leinster v Scarlets, Aviva Stadium, Saturday 6pm (Live on TG4 and Sky Sports Action)
Sport can be a little cruel at times. Leinster have scaled the heights of a first European Champions Cup win in six years and thus, by any yardstick, have had a magnificent season which any other club in Europe would happily embrace. And yet.
As in 2011 and 2012, they find themselves one game away from a double, and thus one defeat away from having a few more rocks under their beach towels this summer. In 2012, Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen, then the captain, sat po-faced in the RDS press room and maintained that their 31-30 defeat to the Ospreys had spoiled their season – a week after they'd retained their European Cup crown by filleting Ulster at Twickenham.
Admittedly, that was in the aftermath of defeat, and in the summer months they'd surely have reflected positively on the season. Yet the same dynamic applies today, and if last week's mantra inside the Leinster camp was that the semi-final would be a game they'd all remember for the rest of their lives, then it's even truer this week. This game is this squad's last game together, and for Isa Nacewa, of course, it will be the last game of his life.
Admitting that those previous defeats contributed to "long summers", Nacewa was asked how important it was to leave with a win. "It's important. There's 55 guys that have been involved in this campaign alone. It means a lot to every single one of us. We've been driving, just chasing a performance this week from the squad and the squad's been unbelievable since recovering from Munster and getting into this week. So yeah, we'll throw everything at it."
A tad unnervingly, whereas Leinster have won all four of their European Cup finals and three finals in this competition, in reaching six of the last eight finals they’ve lost four of them.
As expected, Leinster have restored Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Dan Leavy, ie their European Champions Cup final XV save for James Lowe on the wing, with Nacewa at inside centre, and Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan ahead of Jordi Murphy and Scott Fardy, who are on the bench.
Jamison Gibson-Park, excellent in the 38-16 Euro semi-final win over the Scarlets, thus misses out, and with Joey Carbery covering outhalf, so does Ross Byrne.
Sexton's return makes such a difference. How he hasn't been garlanded in European or Six Nations awards is a mystery. This is only his fifth start in the Pro14, but in the understandable hype around James Ryan, Sexton also has a 100 per cent winning return to date from his vintage 2017-18 season.
In 11 games for his province, all but one from the start, and seven for Ireland, Sexton has been on the winning side, and more often than not played a prolific and pivotal role in those wins. Throw in the Lions drawn third Test and winning second Test, Sexton is unbeaten in 20 games dating back to the first Lions Test, when he was a replacement.
The bigger the occasion, the better he’s played, always probing, always competitive, and a la his team-mates, he has the memory of his last domestic defeat, against the Scarlets in last season’s semi-final.
The Scarlets are, of course, every bit as motivated, as the away aside, the underdogs and the ones seeking to restore pride. There can be wild turnarounds in scorelines in just a week, never mind over five – witness many European back-to-back weekends, and the Lions overturning a 15-point first-Test defeat when winning the second by three.
Wayne Pivac echoed Warren Gatland that week when recalling how “direct off ‘9’” Leinster had been in their Euro semi-final, and vowing that the Scarlets will bring more physicality and line speed, as the Lions did in the second Test.
Tadhg Beirne’s versatility is underlined by his switch to “8” for the injured John Barclay, and Pivac also hailed the return of Leigh Halfpenny, “he’s averaging 18 points a game”, with Jonny McNicholl’s dangerous footwork back on the wing.
Last week the Scarlets also reminded us they are a completely different beast with the running threat of Rhys Patchell restored to outhalf. They are now better equipped to explore Leinster’s vulnerable flanks and utilise their footwork and support play.
The manner of their semi-final win away to Glasgow sent a shiver up Cullen’s spin. So akin was it to last season’s semi-final, and if the Scarlets score early, it could be another case of come into the parlour said the spider to the fly.
Ticket sales have reportedly hit 42,000, and Pivac yesterday forecast “a really good spectacle” with both sides willing to run with the ball in hand. With the weather set fair and the newly crowned European Champions against the reigning Pro14 champions, this probably couldn’t be set up more enticingly.
For the third week running, Leinster are unappealing favourites at 11 points, but with Sexton restored they also look better prepared than a week ago, sufficiently refreshed and, with a likely improvement in their breakdown work, have the all-court game to seal a record fifth title and an historic double.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa (capt), James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Jordi Murphy, Nick McCarthy, Joey Carbery, Rory O'Loughlin.
SCARLETS: Leigh Halfpenny; Johnny McNicholl, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steffan Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens (capt), Samson Lee; Lewis Rawlins, Steven Cummins; Aaron Shingler, James Davies, Tadhg Beirne.
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Werner Kruger, David Bulbring, Will Boyde, Jonathan Evans, Daniel Jones, Tom Prydie.
Referee: Stuart Berry (SARU, 14th Championship appearance)
Overall Pro14 head to head record: Played 31 Leinster won 18, Scarlets won 11 with 2 games drawn.
Last two seasons: (2016-17) Scarlets 38 Leinster 29, Leinster 45 Scarlets 9, (s/f) Leinster 16 Scarlets 27. (2017-18) Leinster 20 Scarlets 13, Scarlets 10 Leinster 10, (ECC s/f) Leinster 38 Scarlets 16.
Leading try scorers: Leinster – Barry Daly 12, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe, Rory O'Loughlin 7 each. Scarlets – Steff Evans 8, Rhys Patchell 7, Tadhg Beirne 7 each.
Leading points scorers: Leinster – Ross Byrne 116. Scarlets – Dan Jones 93, Leigh Halfpenny 91, Rhys Patchell 85.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 2/9 Leinster, 20/1 Draw, 16/5 Scarlets. Handicap odds (Scarlets +11pts) 10/11 Leinster, 19/1 Draw, 10/11 Scarlets.
Forecast: Leinster to win.