Guinness Pro 12 Final: Preview

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Guiness Pro 12 Final

After a weekend of exciting action, we now know the Guinness Pro 12 final pairing. Leinster are eliminated by what a particular Irish pundit described as the ‘West Ham of Rugby’ and Munster after a slow first half took control of their tie to the Ospreys at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the final.

Munster enter the final in confident mood

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Erasmus one game ahead from Pro 12 success

23-3 win over Ospreys is a victory which Munster management team will privately be happy that the side showed cohesion when required in the second half to close out a contest which saw the Welsh side control the opening quarter exchanges. It is food for thought for Munster management and players that their opening quarter tempo and display needs to be more precise and effective than what was produced last weekend.

Credit the Ospreys for making life incredibly difficult for Munster in that opening half. The breakdown was an area where Munster initially failed to assert any presence. Ball was untidy for Murray to work with. For all of Ospreys positive introduction, Dan Biggar’s early penalty was only the reward and when Zebo finished off a sweeping Munster move for the first try of the contest, the work rate and heads started to wane with the visitors.

Munster’s scrum was solid. Kilcoyne was a man possessed on the night. Ball carrying was abrasive as always and his scrummaging set a solid platform to launch home attacks and put Ospreys under increasing pressure. The line-out was decent. Ryan and Holland in open play were hungry for ball carries and making tackles without the ball. The back row after a slow start asserted dominance against an extremely talented Welsh back row division containing Tipuric.

Earls was the standout back for me during this contest. His cameo was full of invention and always probing Ospreys defensively, asking question of their defense. Saili’s selection was on point and the New Zealander produced a typical abrasive performance. His offload in the lead-up to the Zebo try was super. His defensive work which at times has being little off was excellent. Scannell at twelve was quietly effective at the twelve channel. His kicking is such an asset to this side. Conway and Zebo were excellent with ball in hand. Zebo’s supporting running and ability to evade first time tackles must have sent a clear message to the Lions management of his skill-set.

With the likes of James Cronin likely to fully train with the squad this week, no new injury concerns for Rassie Erasmus and management to contend with. The manner of the performance this weekend provides management ammunition to challenge the team to improve. Murray’s cameo spoke volumes; the late scratch of Rhys Webb was massive for the Ospreys. Murray controlled the nine exchanges and his kick game was so missed against Saracens. Mission accomplished but the Irish province have being warned about the live threat from Scarlets.

Scarlets highly impressive in Leinster win

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James Davies – a pivotal figure in this final

Leinster were a well beaten side with ten minutes to go. At times in the second half, you had to remind yourself that Leinster had a player advantage for the entire half but only for a close range Jack Conan try (after a Scarlets lineout overthrow five meters from their own line) was the only time that Scarlets were in any serious defensive distress.

This was as impressive a performance seen all season. Scarlets executed brilliantly on both facets of play. They identified Adam Byrne as a potential avenue of opportunity and so it proved with an opening try which sucked Byrne in to make a defensive misread allowing Barclay the space and time to wait for the advancing Evans to cross. The second and third tries exposed Leinster’s inside defense with Shingler and Davies at nine taking advantage. Whether Munster would be as charitable in the second try is questionable.

The back row performance of Shingler. Davies and Barclay was immense. They set the tone and create havoc in breakdown and open play. Scarlets will look to repeat the trick against Munster; put pressure on Bleyendaal in open play with the onrushing Shingler and Davies. Barclay’s experience to slow down opposition complementing Davies’ ability to create turnovers will pose issues for Munster.

Leinster who are usually so efficient in their turnover count leaked twenty-nine turnovers during the course of their semi-final loss. Many of these turnovers coming from the pressure created by Scarlets. Munster will need to be on point in this facet of play to have any chance of victory.

The attacking side of play was superb from the Scarlets. Their back line options are immense. Williams and Davies were excellent last weekend. Williams is such a perfect foil for Jonathan Davies; his work rate is supreme and his ability to make the hard yards sets the platform for Jonathan Davies to game manage. His skill set is impeccable. His ability to quickly read a situation and make the right decision was seen last weekend.

Stef Evans was having a man of the match performance until his red card, hope that he features for the final. Liam Williams leadership was to the fore when taking on the kicking responsibility to secure the win; his ability with ball in hand is known. Johnny McNicholl at full back was on point coming into the line and was defensive sound in the second half.

The defensive performance of the Scarlets last weekend in the second half was noteworthy. Evans’ red card could have spelled the end of the Scarlets but the side’s resolve to overcome adversity and to support each other defensively was a joy to watch. Their decision making at the breakdown on when to compete was superb. Testament to Pivac and management coaching that the side were so disciplined during this half winning it 6-5 in the process.

The front five’s performance also caught the eye. The scrum was solid with Lee and Evans providing a secure platform. The line-out was on point with Tadhg Beirne outstanding in the set piece and open exchanges. Leinster’s decision to drop Devin Toner from proceedings came back to bite in this facet of play. When you consider that Ken Owens and Jake Ball were unavailable for selection, kudos must go to the front five on duty. They provided their half-backs with quality ball and will be a test for Munster.

Verdict

This is such a compelling finale to the Guinness Pro 12. The romantics will probably point to a Munster victory; a tribute to Axel Foley, a tribute for the fortitude and commitment shown by the province this season since his departure. For Scarlets, it will be an incredible victory; silverware secured and a perfect send off for Saracens bound Liam Williams.

Munster will look to write the wrongs of recent trips to the Aviva Stadium this season. A resounding thumping at the hands of Leinster and a loss to Saracens which exposed limitations in game plan and execution. Are there mental scars from these losses? Can Scarlets take advantage of this and impose their will on proceedings early?

If Munster are to win this contest, the pack will need to assert dominance. The set piece will be an area where Munster will probably target. The scrum looks 50/50 but the line-out options at Munster’s disposal means that Scarlets will be put under incredibly pressure. Holland, Ryan, O’Mahoney and Stander can provide options. O’Mahoney will look to disrupt throughout and the line-out is an area where he excels. Beirne and Ball (if fit) will need to be on point with their calls. Will Owens be fit? For Scarlets to win, he needs to be available.

Murray at nine against Davies is an intriguing contest. Both players possess key traits. Excellent kicking game, ability to snip from the fringes of the ruck. Bleyendaal and Patchell will also be interesting. Who gets more space to assert their influence on the game?

For Scarlets to win this contest, the breakdown area conceivably is the platform for victory. Munster ball carrying options are endless from the back row but it will be interesting to see how they counteract Davies whose omission from the Welsh Summer squad is baffling. O’Donnell conceivably will be asked to nullify this threat but Davies’ talent at creating turnovers will mean an area where the Scarlets can benefit and launch an expansive back line.

An open, loose game favors Scarlets more than Munster. Munster to win will need to pick their moments to open the game up, otherwise the likes of Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies will revel in the surroundings. McNicholl from full back will also pose an issue for Munster. His elusive running when hitting the line was seen to full effect at Thomond Park earlier in the season.

This is a 50/50 contest. Munster may have the majority of support in the Aviva Stadium but this can also play out as a disadvantage. If Scarlets can establish a foothold in the game, it will be interesting to see how the atmosphere in the stadium changes from enthusiasm to silence if this scenario plays out.

This is too close to call. A lot will depend on whether Ball or Owens feature. Both are incredible leaders in the pack. If either do not feature, Munster may have the edge in the front five battle. Beirne was immense in the Leinster win but could be up against it with Ryan and Holland in opposition.

How much did last weekend’s win against Leinster take out of Scarlets? Forty-five minutes playing with fourteen men. The final quarter of this final could prove crucial. I sense Munster may be the fresher team. Slight edge to Munster but Scarlets are a serious live threat here and the West Ham of Rugby (grossly unfair tag to the Scarlets) could easily take the Pro 12 crown. Roll on the weekend to find out the victor!