This weekend fans will make their way on planes, trains, automobiles and… ferries to Edinburgh for the Guinness PRO 12 Final at Murrayfield. This being the 15th year of Celtic rugby and 2nd year to have a fixed venue for the final.
Although the idea of a fixed venue is controversial for many, 100% of the semi-finals went the way of the home sides, showing how much home advantage can count for, so having the final at the RDS or Aviva under the old system might have been a bit unfair on Connacht.
Especially in their maiden final, the neutral venue may just suit Pat Lam’s side fine. Let’s just hope there is a decent crowd to watch these two teams duke it out for the title.
The progress Connacht have shown in the last 3 years has been remarkable. In 2013-2014 they were sitting in 10th place with only 6 wins to their name just above basement dwellers Treviso and Zebre.
The 2014-2015 season saw them push for a spot in Europe, with Scarlets just pulling ahead in the last few weeks of the league. However, a lifeline was offered with playoffs to the newly reformatted European Cup. Sadly, it proved a bridge too far with a narrow loss to Gloucester in a high scoring affair (40-32).
This season has seen Connacht qualify in their own right, only missing out in top spot due to one less victory than Leinster – both teams are tied on 73 points.
This all based on consistency, and the Pat Lam attack philosophy that has Connacht the top team for try bonus points and allowed Matt Healy to bag 9 tries this season.
But for me their player of the season must be Bundee Aki. The New Zealander has been present in 22 of Connacht’s league games this year, leading the charge from midfield. While the big fella is not shy of running through lesser mortals, he also has great footwork and is clearly a team man.
Leo Cullen has had a rough start to his first year as a head coach. The start of the season saw his side struggle with injuries and a large amount of players heading to the World Cup, leading to some inconsistent performances.
While Connacht have been able to put out more or less a consistent 23 for each game, Leo has had to do without a lot of 1st XV players, relying on the next generation to fill the gaps.
The European campaign was… a disaster. For the three-time champions to be knocked out before xmas just shows how strong English and French teams are now. At least they weren’t alone with both Munster and Ulster also failing to qualify.
The early exit has however allowed them to concentrate on the league and giving the younger players game time is really starting to pay off. Former U20 world cup player of the year nominee Gary Ringrose is growing into every game.
Unlucky not to feature in this year’s 6 Nations or selection for the summer tour to South Africa, it’s only a matter of time before he makes his international debut.
Another young player to make an impact this season is Josh van der Flier. Slotting seamlessly into the number 7 jersey for the injured Sean O’Brien, it’s unfortunate an ankle injury rules him out for the final.
SO WHO’S GOING TO WIN?
The two sides have traded wins this season in close run encounters, Leinster winning 13-0 at the RDS, and Connacht the victors at the Sportsground, 7-6.
Connacht, the best attacking side of the league, come up against the best defence.
The fairy-tale ending would be for Connacht to take the cup on Saturday evening, and after two hard fought wins over last year’s winners Glasgow, most neutrals will be rooting for them.
Leinster turned up a gear last Friday shutting Ulster out, 30-18, which was far removed from the 30-6 tanking they received up in Ravenhill two weeks before.
They are finally hitting some form, and with their experience of reaching and winning major finals versus first timers Connacht having to battle through two energy sapping matches with Glasgow, you would have to lean towards Leinster securing the 4th title.
But you never know, dreams to come true, just ask Leicester City F.C.
Tune in Sat 28th at 17:30 (live on Sky Sports & TG4) as its sure to be a cracking match
15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Matt Healy, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Kieran Marmion
1 Ronan Loughney, 2 Tom McCartney, 3 Finlay Bealham, 4 Ultan Dillane, 5 Aly Muldowney, 6 Eoin McKeon, 7 Jake Heenan, 8 John Muldoon (c). Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 JP Cooney, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Andrew Browne, 20 Sean O’Brien, 21 John Cooney, 22 Shane O’Leary, 23 Peter Robb.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Dave Kearney, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan.
1 Jack McGrath, 2 Richard Strauss, 3 Mike Ross, 4 Ross Molony, 5 Mick Kearney, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 7 Jordi Murphy, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c). Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Zane Kirchner.
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