By Bernard Jackman
Saturday at the RDS is a brilliant opportunity for Leinster to do what everyone knows they can do: find what Shane Jennings called “that extra gear”.
Over the season, critics have been hard on head coach Matt O’Connor and the style of rugby that Leinster are playing, but I think that he is being judged too harshly.
Taking over from Joe Schmidt was an incredibly tough assignment. The New Zealander’s time at the province was so successful it was always going to be difficult to carry on winning European trophies, especially in a competition that has actually gotten stronger.
The Heineken Cup finalists – Toulon and Clermont last year, Toulon and Saracens this year - show that the big spending teams are starting to become harder to beat.
Leinster still finished top of the RaboDirect PRO12 with an impressive 82 points and also qualified from a Heineken Cup group that contained the best team in Wales (Ospreys), the French champions (Castres), and the English finalists (Northampton).
Given the strength of that group, its was always going to be a huge ask to get the home quarter-final that we know statistically is so important. Leinster then had the misfortune to be drawn against Toulon at the Stade Mayol, a stadium where the champions have never lost in Europe.
They also had to handle the fact they had a host of top players away with the Lions – the likes of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney are backing up after a very intense summer.
O'Connor needs time to mould Leinster
O’Connor also came into this job without being able to bring in his own staff, something most Directors of Rugby like to do.
He also inherited a squad going through transition. Leinster had just lost two more key players in Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton. Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll were coming into their last seasons after brilliant careers for the province.
Nacewa was ‘Mr Consistency’, and his influence on and off the field was probably more important than some of Leinster’s Irish internationals simply because he was there all year round.
And what about Sexton? Leinster have not been as slick in their attack as they are capable of being, but they have lost one of the most respected and best paid players in the world. He manages the game brilliantly and creates space and opportunities for other players through attacking the gain line flat and the quality of his passing. His drive and leadership are also exceptional.
Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan have both being trying to replace him without a drop in the overall team performances, but like O’Connor’s, that is a virtually impossible task.
Looking to the future, I am very impressed by the signing of Kane Douglas for next season: he is a quality player and has a very good age and injury profile. His aggression and athleticism should give them the impact that they probably hoped to get from Quinn Roux.
Another positive for Leinster next year is that O’Connor will go into this preseason knowing his squad inside out and they also will have had a year working under him and they will be a lot more comfortable with his systems and philosophies.
Strength at the RDS a positive for Leinster
Looking at this weekend’s game, Leinster’s home record at the RDS is very impressive; the last time they were beaten there being March 2013 by Ulster. Their overall record in this competition is also incredible – since winning it for the first time in 2008 they have been in five consecutive Grand Finals and they are the holders.
But Glasgow will bring confidence from their narrow losses to Leinster in the Pro12 semi-finals last year and the year before, and the league meeting a couple of months ago when they ran Leinster very close before losing 28-25.
They also have had no distractions over the last while having being knocked out of the Heineken Cup at the quarter-final stage by Toulon. In recent years they have played the Rabo Pro12 final relatively soon after being in European action which is tolling physically and mentally; not so this year.
And they have continued to improve this season under the tutelage of the Gregor Townsend, who has shown himself to be an excellent coach.
They have actually won more games than any other team in the league this season with 18 wins and while we all remember Townsend for his off-the-cuff brilliance, his side have a real focus on their defensive responsibilities (an area overseen by Australian defence coach Matt Taylor).
They are also very disciplined in terms of their kicking game and have a capacity to dominate territorially.
Unlike Edinburgh, who have a lot of project players, the squad is composed primarily of Scottish players, with foreign players filling in areas of weakness.
The formula seems to be working and it was great to see a full house in Glasgow for their semi-final win over Munster. The hope is that they will continue to boost the professional game in Scotland.
Glasgow: team culture and precise gameplan
As regards playing personnel, this Glasgow squad lacks the star quality and reputations of Leinster one but they have a really solid culture of hard work and they play for each other and the jersey. When you combine that with a very precise gameplan it will take you a long way in rugby.
It is disappointing to see Stuart Hogg left out of the match squad by their coaches as he is a gifted player. But it seems that his head has been turned by some other clubs despite having a year left on his contract with the Scottish Union, and Glasgow feel that his attitude isn’t where it needs to be.
But they have other talented players, not least the young out-half Finn Russell, and their forward pack is capable of going toe-to-toe with the Leinster eight.
Could they upset Leinster?
While I expect Glasgow to be very competitive I think that Leinster have a better bench and more players with the experience of and mentality to win these big games, even when they aren’t firing on all cylinders.
O’Driscoll and Cullen both deserve big send-offs as they retire and I think the players and the home crowd will make it a celebratory finish.