Friday, May 29, 2015

Match preview : Pro12 Final


From rounds 1 to 22 in this season's Guinness Pro12, Glasgow Warriors had the best record.  From rounds 2 to 22, that honour fell to Munster.  So it's hard to deny that the two correct teams have reached the final.

Is it being played in the correct venue?  Hmmm.  Well from a perspective that's deep within the Irish bubble I'd say that Raven-span was due a final after the Ulstermen were denied their claim by fate in 2013, but this is the Pro12 and there are other bubbles to be considered.  The Scots have a decent case to make that not only should topping the pile earn you home advantage, but it's about time the league's showpiece took place away from the Emerald Isle.

But as that annoying phrase goes, "we are where we are", so I best start harpin on how I think this match will go.  

We know both teams rely on a cohesive 15-man plan.  It's not about whether one man can do something spectacular, more that one man executes the basics well because he has quality support around him.  This applies to both Glasgow and Munster on both offence and defence.

Either side can make some serious yardage whether it be by neat offloading in Glasgow's case or in Munster's a quick reaction to the number of bodies committed to the breakdown by the opposition.  That can get them quickly into the opponent's 22 but then they'll be up against a pretty solid defence in each case.

This means that scoring could well be at a premium on the day and with Nigel Owens holding the whistle the odds are that refereeing decisions won't play a factor so it should boil down to good old-fashioned accuracy to decide who comes out on top, which is exactly how a top-tier rugby final should be.

Munster will of course miss their international duo of Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray, both injured in the semifinal.  Still, for all the complaints about Duncan Williams by Munster fans over the years I thought he did pretty well last weekend against the Ospreys and as for O'Mahony's replacement, Donncha Ryan certainly needs no introduction and Billy Holland can certainly do a job at lock.

On the Glasgow side, naturally the first name you look for is Niko Matawalu, and on this occasion Gregor Townsend has opted for a place on the bench for the Fijian - still, his introduction to this fixture could be a turning point - as for which direction the match will turn, your guess is as good as mine.  

Many talk about his dive against Ulster but his performance was about much more than that for me.  We saw the very best and the very worst from him - his behind-the-back offload helped Glasgow score their winning try yet a bit of naive defending allowed Ulster in for a 5-pointer in the first half.

As for the Warriors actually starting, it definitely seems like a solid selection and much will be expected from their back three of Hogg, Seymour and Van Der Merwe, not to mention outhalf Finn Russell, who has to be in a more confident frame of mind after the semifinals than his opposite number Ian Keatley.

Naturally you can expect any Munster pack to be strong and even without their injury list this tight eight is no exception.  It will be sad to see the great Paul O'Connell wearing this particular shade of red for the last time but we can be sure that he will lead from the front.

At scrum time you can be sure BJ Botha will be looking for an angle to gain an advantage, though you can also be sure Nigel Owens will be well able for him.  In the back row Paddy Butler has impressed at 7 but with Josh Strauss captaining the Warriors and keen to impress the Scottish selectors the breakdown should be some battleground.

The bookies are leaning towards Munster to capture their 4th title, though just by the two points.  I think the Warriors have done extremely well to get to a point where they have reached two finals in a row but when I look at these two sides and try to imagine which will blink first in a contest that demands perfection, it's the Scots I see doing it.

I reckon it will be a close one until the final 15 minutes where Munster could pull away to a crucial 8-point lead which they are well able to bring home, though the margin could be narrowed down to 4-6 points by full time.

Here's hoping for two things : (1) that it's a battle that lives up to the occasion, and (2) that the league doesn't get too used to Leinster not being in the final as we'll be back next year ;-)

Best wishes to both sides and all their supporters...of course what with this being an Irish site I'm hoping my prediction is right and Paulie says goodbye in style.  JLP

Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Saturday 30 May Kick-off: 18:30 

Glasgow Warriors: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Richie Vernon, Peter Horne, DTH van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos, Gordon Reid, Dougie Hall, Rossouw de Klerk, Leone Nakarawa, Jonny Gray, Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson, Josh Strauss (captain). Replacements: Fraser Brown, Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Jon Welsh, Al Kellock, Chris Fusaro, Niko Matawalu, Duncan Weir, Sean Lamont.

Munster: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Andrew Smith, Denis Hurley (captain), Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Eusebio Guinazu, BJ Botha; Billy Holland, Paul O'Connell; Donnacha Ryan, Paddy Butler, CJ Stander. Replacements: Duncan Casey, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Sean Dougall, Jack O'Donoghue, Cathal Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, Ronan O'Mahony.

Live on Sky Sports/TG4/BBC Sport Scotland 
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 127th competition game)
Assistant Referees: 1) Ian Davies, 2) Sean Brickell, 4) Gwyn Morris, 5) Wayne Davies (all WRU )
Citing Commissioner: Stefano Marrama (FIR)
TMO: Derek Bevan (WRU)
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