Unbeaten champions Leinster look primed to complete hat-trick of PRO14 titles
The season has been curtailed, two of the participants didn’t even complete their fixtures. An entire round of knockout games was discarded and there was a five-and-a-half-month gap in the middle of the whole thing.
And yet, no one will be calling for an asterisk to be applied to the winner’s name at the end of today’s final. If Leinster complete the job as they are heavily favoured to do, they finish the Guinness PRO14 season unbeaten and definitively as the best squad and side in the competition.
If Ulster somehow end their 24-match winning run to upset the odds, then they’ll be deserving champions themselves.
The peculiarities of the season play into the selections.
Whatever about Johnny Sexton, who hadn’t played a PRO14 game in 2019/’20 before the lockdown, it would have been unimaginable for Ulster to go into this game without John Cooney when he was the competition’s best player during the regular season.
And yet, he will take a seat and watch on as Alby Mathewson, who was a Munster player when the campaign kicked off, starts in the No 9 shirt.
Both of these teams have a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final next weekend and Leinster have made selection calls with the battles to come in mind.
As expected, Sexton steps aside for Ross Byrne and Luke McGrath is replaced by Jamison Gibson-Park, while Scott Fardy makes way for the returning James Ryan. Josh van der Flier returns as Will Connors drops to the bench.
Ryan’s return is countered by Ulster’s surprise selection of their captain Iain Henderson who joins his Ireland second-row partner in making his first appearance since the sport shut down.
There is a lot on his shoulders. Ulster have good forwards, but they lack the punch of their opposite numbers. Henderson ups the levels in their tight five.
Will it be enough?
Certainly, with Marcell Coetzee and Stuart McCloskey able to punch holes and free their hands, the men from the north always have a chance.
They demonstrated the capacity to trouble Leinster on the big day in last year’s European quarter-final.
Leinster, however, have moved on from that day and will surely only benefit from that warning.
Even without Sexton, they have attacking weapons all over the pitch. Their front-five is fearsome, their back-row packs a real punch and, with Gibson-Park partnering Byrne, they have passing and kicking weapons to stretch the Ulster defence.
Centres Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose mix danger with defensive solidity, while their back-three will punish any error.
With Sexton at the vanguard, their bench is excellent. Ulster have gone for a six/two split of backs and forwards, but there is more quality and experience on the blue side of the equation.
“We’re planning for a strong 80-minute game from them, so we need to make sure we have that bit of punch coming off the bench as well,” Leo Cullen said as he recalled last year’s game. “What are teams like when everything is at stake?
“The winners get the prize and the losers get nothing. It’s important that we understand that dynamic when it really comes down to it.
“They really put it up to us that day. We rode our luck at different stages so we need to make sure that we get all our bits right so we’re not relying on the opposition coming up with the odd error, here and there, that is going to win us the game.
“We need to go out and put in a performance that is good enough to win us the game on merit.
“That’s what we’ve tried to focus on this week.”
No one has been able to stop them this season and, while Ulster showed their mettle in Edinburgh, it’s difficult to see anything other than a third Leinster title in a row.