MARIETTE ADAMS looks ahead to the Pro14 final between Leinster and the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday.
This match-up between the newly crowned European champions and the Pro14 title holders has all the makings of a classic.
Given their excellent record across all competitions this season – 23 wins, six defeats and a draw in 30 games – Leinster will go into the title-decider as favourites. But the Scarlets – with a return of 19 wins, nine defeats and a draw from 29 games – are not too far off the pace of their opponents.
And as proven in last year’s final against Munster, the Scarlets have a habit of pulling off upset wins in crucial games.
However, the Scarlets’ preparation this week has been far from ideal. Coach Wayne Pivac was forced to cancel his planned training session on Monday due to players suffering from severe cuts, grazes, grass burns and blisters, which were sustained on the artificial G4 pitch they played on in the semi-final against the Glasgow Warriors. According to the club, flank John Barclay’s ruptured Achilles tendon was partially due to the state of the ‘firm’ pitch.
Pivac and several of his players have voiced their displeasure about the artificial surface because they believe the injuries put them at a disadvantage in the build-up to the final.
‘It is what it is, but I’m not a fan,’ said Pivac. ‘To run around and knock the skin off is not an ideal situation. It is very bad.’
The Scarlets’ star wing Steff Evans echoed Pivac’s sentiments, saying: ‘These wounds are going to be stuck with me for a while. It was like playing on carpet, it was shocking.’
While the debate about playing surfaces and it’s immediate impact on the Scarlets’ title aspirations rages on, Leinster have gone about their work quietly.
The Irish province has been dealt an injury setback with the news that centre Robbie Henshaw will not feature in the final, but their bid for an unprecedented Champions Cup and Pro14 double was boosted by the return to fitness of influential trio Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Dan Leavy.
Also counting in Leinster’s favour is the fact that Pro14 officials made a unanimous decision to move the kick-off forward by half an hour to avoid a clash with the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid on the same day.
‘This decision was taken in order to accommodate fans in the stadium or at home who wish to enjoy the drama and excitement of the Pro14 final and also take in the Champions League final afterwards,’ read the official statement.
By Wednesday, ticket sales were not far off last year’s record of 45,566.
Leinster – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Isa Nacewa (c), 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Scott Fardy, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Scarlets – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Johnny Mcnicholl, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Tadhg Beirne, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Lewis Rawlins, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 David Bulbring, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Jonathan Evans, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Tom Prydie.