As we look ahead to the match of the domestic season in the Guinness Pro 14, a whole season’s worth of effort comes down to just one game in each competition.
In Ireland there is a mouth-watering final in prospect, with newly crowned Champions Cup winners Leinster hosting the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium.
The Pro 14 has been fascinating this year with South African side the Cheetahs proving their worth to the competition and the conference system working well, but my personal highlight has been the improvement in the Benneton club. The Italian side managed eleven wins out of their twenty-one games and finished fifth ahead of the disappointing Dragons and Southern Kings. Rugby will only grow in Italy with continued involvement in the Pro 14 and Benetton are proving this to be the case, and the knock-on effect will be felt by the national team.
As for the final, Leinster have had perfect preparation with a near faultless Champions Cup semi-final performance against the Scarlets followed by a nervy and uncharacteristically error strewn final win. Add to this the hard-fought semi-final win over Munster and you have a team that are at their competitive peak and truly match hardened. The names are familiar to us all, but the key men are Jonny Sexton for his will to win and sheer drive, and Scott Fardy and James Ryan.
Fardy is the quiet influencer from Australia who adds a layer of experience at blind side whilst James Ryan is Leinster’s Maro Itoje, a young player who hasn’t experienced the losing feeling in 21 games for Leinster and Ireland!
Scarlets come to town after a disappointing end to their European campaign was quickly forgotten as they took Glasgow to the cleaners in the semi-final. They are a joy to watch and the understanding and link play between forwards and backs is sublime with Hadleigh Parkes and Scot Williams interacting with Aaron Shingler and James Davies they can score from anywhere. A huge blow though is the loss of John Barclay, whose leadership will be sorely missed.
As for the result I can’t get past the thought that this Leinster team are determined to become one of the great sides and, in order to do that, a double would seal the deal. Leinster by twelve or more.