Leinster have taste for Magners success
Under the old Magners League rules, Leinster would already have been crowned champions courtesy of their top-of-the-table finish, so when captain Shane Jennings was asked yesterday if he liked the new play-off format, he could be forgiven a wry reply.
“It's terrible,” he smiled. “No, it makes it exciting and teams like Leinster and the Ospreys want to aspire to big days for fans and for their clubs, so it's another big occasion for both clubs and we'll be doing our best to get that silverware.”
Although the play-off format has stretched out what already seemed like an interminable season, it has created a bit if a buzz in Irish rugby before the GAA championships and World Cup properly take over.
It has allowed Leinster to emphasise their recent superiority over Munster, courtesy of a convincing victory — their fourth in succession — in the semi-final, and it has also set up a fitting finale for the coaches and players exiting the Leinster stage.
One of those, Malcolm O'Kelly, starts in the second row this evening in a powerful selection that contains nine players who will fly out for the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia next weekend.
CJ van der Linde starts at tight-head in his final game for the province and, given that the cost of acquiring the South African never matched his injury-affected contribution, it would be good for all concerned if the 'Bok went out with a bang.
Cian Healy has been battling illness this week and if he does not make it onto the bench, Mike Ross will come in. The rest of the team is along expected lines, with O'Kelly slotting in for injured captain Leo Cullen, and a full-strength backline save for long-term absentee Luke Fitzgerald.
That is just as well, for the Ospreys’ backline is a formidable unit, with compelling match-ups wherever you look. Rob Kearney and Lee Byrne, who faced off for the Lions’ full-back jersey in South Africa last summer, go head-to-head again, while the Shane Horgan-Shane Williams battle on the touchline brings together two wingers with contrasting styles and physical qualities.
Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy have worthy midfield opponents in the impressive Andrew Bishop and James Hook — the player most likely to turn the game on its head with a burst of individual brilliance.
At half-back, Jonathan Sexton and Dan Biggar are two young stand-offs with big futures and, while Eoin Reddan gives away several inches in size to his opposite Mike Phillips, the Leinster No 9 has had an excellent season and is well capable of keeping pace with the Wales and Lions star.
However, that will depend to a large degree on the quality of ball provided by the Leinster forwards, which brings us to the critical showdown between the respective back rows. Kevin McLaughlin, Jennings and Jamie Heaslip have developed a strong and effective working relationship this season and will need to express that unity against the Ospreys’ trio of Jerry Collins, Marty Holah and captain Ryan Jones.
The front-five battle should be fairly even, with both sides capable of securing their line-out ball, although the home side could have an edge in the scrum.
When Leinster won the Magners League in 2008, it was the springboard for Heineken Cup success the following year and Jennings stressed the impact of silverware on confidence heading into a season when Leinster's front-line players will be tightly controlled under the World Cup 2011 player-management scheme.
“Success leads on to bigger and better things. The last few seasons we did well in that department,” said Jennings.
“If we fall short this season, we've won nothing. Coming first in the league or doing well in the league and doing well in the semi-final doesn't count for much, so that's the beauty of it.
One Ospreys back Jennings will be monitoring closely is Irish right winger Tommy Bowe.
Leinster coach Michael Cheika said: “He's the guy who scores the tries.
“We know if we give him one inch of room he'll take it, so it's going to be a battle of nerve.”