Allan Massie: Big-game experience and rich talent make Leinster formidable

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, left, speaks to Johnny Sexton. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, left, speaks to Johnny Sexton. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
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Leinster lost their European Crown to Saracens and did so despite having been 10-0 up after half an hour. The fact that they failed to score when they had a long period of pressure in the Saracens 22, when the score was 10-10, will have made the pain worse.

Eventually Leinster were reduced to making desperate efforts to run the ball out of their own 22; it seemed they had forgotten that territory may be as important as possession. It was a bruising encounter, and what will have been especially bitter was the knowledge that Saracens had by the end completely subdued them. On the other hand, there was never a moment when it looked as if Saracens would run riot, as they had done in their quarter-final against Glasgow.

Last Saturday, Glasgow did to Ulster what Saracens had done to them; it was their best performance this season. Then on Sunday Leinster beat Munster in what was another brutally hard match. So you might argue that Glasgow are the form team today and, with the match being played in their own city, should be the favourites. I doubt if many will subscribe to that view, and not only because Scottish rugby teams seldom wear the favourites’ tag with confidence or, indeed, success.

There are two reasons for tempering optimism. First, Leinster have much more experience than their opponents of winning big matches, and such experience usually counts. Second, Leinster’s head coach Leo Cullen can deploy a rich array of talent. Leinster have 15 players who have shared in winning Grand Slams for Ireland. Scotland last won the Grand Slam in 1990. There are seven Lions in the Leinster squad, only two (Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour) in Glasgow’s. Pretty well everyone in the Leinster match-day squad has experience of European and/or Pro 14 finals. Only seven or eight of the Glasgow team played in their previous finals in 2014 and 2015.

The Leinster defence is very hard to breach. Even Saracens managed to do so only a couple of times. There is no club side better at retaining possession than Leinster. They have power, pace, and skill from 1 to 15. Their kicking game is as good as anyone’s except perhaps Saracens, and Johnny Sexton at 10 is a canny, as well as often brilliant, operator. It will be interesting to see the contrast between his vast experience and the raw talent of Adam Hastings.

It may well be that this is 
Sexton’s last game for Leinster, for, depending on how things go for Ireland in Japan, he may retire after the World Cup. We know of course that it is certainly Stuart Hogg’s farewell to Glasgow, since he is off to Exeter next season. (On the other hand he might well come back some day.) Hogg was one of Glasgow’s brightest stars when they won the Pro12 title in 2015, beating Munster in the final. The other two brightest, Finn Russell and Leone Nakarawa, now display their gifts in Paris. One may think, “what a team we would have today if they had stayed”, but it says much for the coaches and management at Scotstoun that Glasgow have survived their departure and continued to flourish.

Where might Glasgow have the edge today? Though Leinster have a formidable front-row, there should be parity in the scrum. In the absence of the lofty Devin Toner, who scarcely has to get airborne to win the ball in the lineout, Glasgow may have the advantage in that area. Leinster may have a better kicking game, but any loose kicks are likely to be punished by a Glasgow team that loves to counter-attack. One may expect Leinster to choose to play a tight game, employing repeated one-pass drives to keep possession and win penalties at the breakdown. They can play a conservative game very well indeed.

Glasgow, however, were brilliant against Ulster, and they were able to be brilliant because they looked for space and attacked it, varying their game to keep the opposition guessing – and, far too often for their own comfort, Ulster guessed wrong. It may be more difficult to find space this evening, but it is Glasgow’s ability to identify space and play a fast game that surely offers them the best chance of victory. Dave Rennie’s team know they have to assert themselves up front, but also that the best way of doing that is to shift the point of attack. They probably come to this match a bit fresher than Leinster, not only on account of the schedule, but also because three of their forwards, captain Callum Gibbins and the Fagerson brothers all missed a good few weeks of the season on account of injuries.

Finally, next season will be an odd and unpredictable one on account of the World Cup. So for some of the Glasgow team this may be their best chance of getting what so many of this evening’s opponents already have: a winner’s medal.