Sean Holley’s select XV for the Guinness PRO14 Finals Series

Charlie Talbot-Smith
02 May 2019

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Former Ospreys head coach and Premier Sports pundit Sean Holley picks his Finals Series XV of the season.

Sean was asked to pick a XV from the Final Series clubs (Leinster, Glasgow, Munster, Ulster, Benetton & Connacht) with a maximum of three players from each squad…

Team selection is what separates the great coaches from the good ones.

Tasked with selecting a Guinness PRO14 XV from the six qualifying teams for the play-offs reminded me of how difficult a job it is! There is so much talent around the teams in this year’s competition.

Having won the title a few times as a coach I know what it takes to manage the season and navigate your squad through international windows. My selections are based not necessarily on the best players in any one given team.

To win the Guinness PRO14 you have to have robust, versatile players and many of my picks either have the correct skill set, experience and/or endurance to prevail in this long season.

You miss your big-name players and they don’t always play a lot of the regular season games. Some may not be international calibre players, but they provide the coaches with the flexibility and stamina to get to the playoff stages and a chance to win the title.

Needless to say, there was plenty of competition.

15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow)

Even though Hogg has missed big parts of the season through injury I still find it very hard to leave him out. He has an all-around game that is hard to match. Full-backs catch the eye for different reasons, but Hogg has it all – whether he’s under the high ball or counter attacking from deep Hogg provides the spark and inspiration for his Glasgow team with his attacking abilities.

His searing pace and ability to beat defenders stands him out and in addition he has a siege gun boot out of hand or off the floor for goal

Contenders: Mike Haley (Munster), Tiernan O’Halloran (Connacht), Jayden Hayward (Benetton)

14 Iliesa Ratuva (Benetton)

I’m certainly not picking Ratuva for his defensive qualities, but with ball in hand he is one of the best in the tournament. He has beaten more defenders than any other winger in the regular season and has made important and telling contributions, most notably his equalising try at the RDS to secure a crucial draw for his side against Leinster.

His offloading game suits a resurgent Benetton side – he has three try assists to add to his four tries this season. He has been a mainstay of the team, making him a durable asset in the run in to the knockout stages.

Contenders: Darren Sweetnam (Munster), Cian Kelleher (Connacht) Andrew Conway (Munster)

13 Nick Grigg (Glasgow)

Grigg’s low centre of gravity and explosive speed make him a difficult centre to put down. He hits the line hard, can step at high speed and bounce off would-be tacklers. An international player, he has been invaluable to the Warriors whilst not selected for Scotland.

His impressive try scoring performance in the away win at the Ospreys in November really kept the Glasgow momentum going. Once through the defensive line Grigg links well with his team mates, bagging five try assists this term.

Contenders: Thomas Farrell (Connacht), Chris Farrell (Munster)

12 Stuart McCloskey (Ulster)

This man mountain stands out not just because of his physical attributes, which are different to any other 12 in the competition. McCloskey has the subtle skills needed to be a play-making 12 to go with his gainline prowess, brute strength and offloading capability. He has deceptive pace and beats defenders off first phase – 16 clean breaks makes he and Nick Grigg ahead of other centres in the Guinness PRO14 knock out teams.

He has a useful kicking game and is a formidable defender with a tackle success rate of over 90% – literally head and shoulders above his centre competitors.

Contenders: Peter Horne (Glasgow), Dan Goggin (Munster), Conor O’Brien (Leinster)

11 James Lowe (Leinster)

Lowe has played only half the number of minutes in the Guinness PRO14 that my other wing choice Ratuva has. That said, he makes my XV on sheer impact in the games he has played and the fear he puts into the opposition. Lowe is such a great finisher close to the line that it’s hard to leave him out. When you then think of potentially tight knockout games to come, what you need is a player who can win you a match.

And I believe Lowe is of that calibre. He is also a real threat running the ball from kicks and Leinster use him very smartly off the first phase – often as a decoy or distraction, but then switching to him down the shortside where he can be difficult to stop one on one.

Contenders: Monty Ioane (Benetton), Matt Healy (Connacht), Nikola Matawalu (Glasgow)

10 Adam Hastings (Glasgow)

Glasgow fans may have feared that their team would struggle without Finn Russell this season and that their style of play might change. Enter young Adam Hastings. He has literally lit up the Championship with his attacking flair and willingness to attack from all areas of the field. He has the pace, guile and pedigree to warrant international honours and his kicking game is gaining in confidence all the while.

No outside half in the knockout teams has made as many metres or beaten as many defenders as Hastings. And he’s hungry for more – look out for him in the semi-finals.

Contenders: Jack Carty (Connacht), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Ciaran Frawley (Leinster)

9 John Cooney (Ulster)

Cooney has pushed himself towards Ireland reckoning with his improved performances. A sniping tenacious half back, he is able to speed the game up with his service and quick tap penalties. Cooney also has the added benefit of being an assured goal kicker. He has won vital matches for Ulster with his kicking, securing important home wins in the opening two games of the season with the last kicks of those games.

He crucially kicked the last kicks in the home win against Cardiff Blues and the away victory at the Ospreys. In a tight Conference, Ulster can thank Cooney for their final position in more ways than one.

Contenders: George Horne (Glasgow), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster), Alby Matthewson (Munster)

1 Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)

There are not many more dynamic looseheads, if any, around the Guinness PRO14 than Kilcoyne. A powerful, explosive scrummager, Kilcoyne takes this dynamism into open play and loves to carry the ball. He has a higher average carry gain and more metres than any other loosehead prop, beating many defenders with ball in hand. He’s almost like another ball carrying back row for Munster and he also has the highest tackle efficiency for a prop.

Glasgow’s Ollie Kebble pushed him hard for this spot, but the former Baby Bok’s stats just didn’t stack up to Kilcoyne’s and his 23 penalties against this season did not help. Eric O’Sullivan of Ulster too has been impressive – I even named him Man of The Match in a commentary game versus the Dragons!

Contenders: Ollie Kebble (Glasgow), Eric O’Sullivan (Ulster), Ed Byrne (Leinster)

2 Rob Herring (Ulster)

Herring has led from the front this season, captaining the side for most of the Guinness PRO14 and notably scoring seven tries in 15 matches. Many of those were from the base of a maul but the lineout function and the maul set-ups are a large part of his doing and he has ensured that Ulster have not missed the experienced Rory Best whilst away with Ireland or injury.

At 29 and as an Ireland international born in South Africa, Herring has invaluable experience to compliment Best going into the latter stages of the competition.

Contenders: James Tracy (Leinster), Hame Faiva (Benetton), George Turner (Glasgow)

3 Finlay Bealham (Connacht)

At 27 Finlay Bealham is starting to mature as a tighthead prop, although he is capable of playing either side of the scrum. Call ups to the Ireland squad have taken him away from the Connacht squad but whilst there he is an ever present in the Galway side’s team.

Bealham offers more than just his set-piece work and he is useful at gaining his side turnovers and contributes with ball in hand, scoring a try in the first and last games of the regular season despite an injury in the middle of the campaign.

Contenders: Stephen Archer (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Marty Moore (Ulster)

4 Tadhg Beirne (Munster)

If Beirne was the signing of the decade for Scarlets a few seasons ago it has been replicated by Munster who grabbed him from the West Walians. Here is the perfect all-action back five player for any team, especially suited to Guinness PRO14 rugby. Beirne breaks all the boundaries in the lock department adding gainline carries, offloads and try scoring ability to his already immaculate set piece work.

But the real added value is in his jackals and turnovers in defence. 15 turnovers won in just 10 regular season games. A phenomenal player who would get into any team in the competition.

 Contenders: Jean Kleyn (Munster), Scott Cummings (Glasgow), Irne Herbst (Benetton)

5 Scott Fardy (Leinster)

In my experience the winning of the Guinness PRO14 is as much about the players who stand up during the international windows. You need to rely on experienced, consistently performing overseas players to compliment your home-grown young talent. Scott Fardy exemplifies this. Like Beirne, a back five player that has a skillset of a back row.

A superb lineout technician and orchestrator of threatening attacking mauls, Fardy’s durability and consistency rubs off on the young Leinster players. He has had to play the big brother part to a fine art this season, steering an internationally shorn Leinster team to the top of their Conference.

 Contenders: Fineen Wycherley (Munster), Alan O’Connor (Ulster), Jonny Gray (Glasgow)

6 Colby Fainga’a (Connacht)

Fainga’a has worked tirelessly alongside captain Jarrad Butler in the Connacht back row to get their side over the line and into the Quarter Finals. He is a wrecking ball of a back rower playing at six or seven. He is an ever present for Connacht this season winning 13 turnovers and he is hungry for the ball.

The Sportsground seems to suit his mentality and make up as his destructive tackling, barnstorming ball carrying and lung busting support play gets the Galway fans behind him. A useful lineout option too, Fainga’a is proving to be a player Connacht can’t be without.

Contenders: Seb Negri (Benetton), Nick Timoney (Ulster), Jarrad Butler (Connacht)

7 Braam Steyn (Benetton)

If Colby Fainga’a is a wrecking ball, well here you have the nightclub bouncer! Braam Steyn has had a brilliant season for Benetton and Italy. You need a talisman in your team to inspire and lift in tough times and Steyn is my man.

He does the hardest of hard yards with his abrasive style. He doesn’t line break he line busts! His sheer nuisance value to the opposition, getting into places he really shouldn’t be, typifies Benetton’s approach this season – fearing no one and firmly believing they could make the knockout stages.

Contenders: Chris Cloete (Munster), Callum Gibbins (Glasgow), Jordi Murphy (Ulster)

8 Max Deegan (Leinster)

I’m not quite sure when the Leinster player conveyor belt is going to stop. The array of talent Leinster have in the back row has meant that Max Deegan has had to bide his time. He has. He has also taken his chance. Deegan plays across the back row, but I like his intelligence and game knowledge as a No. 8.

He’s figured in pretty much all of Leinster’s title campaign and is proving a useful tool for Leo Cullen at the breakdown, in the lineout and at the back of the scrum. To pip the likes of Coetzee and Botha for this spot speaks volumes for the potential this guy has.

Contenders: Marcell Coetzee (Ulster), Arno Botha (Munster), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow)

The bench is all important in a PRO14 season. I’ve gone for a set of impact players to inject extra life into my All Star XV. Explosive power in the front row, lineout presence at lock and game changing quality at either end from Coetzee in the back row.

Gibson-Park brings some nous and cheekiness whereas Frawley for me could be the next big thing – an old head on young shoulders. As for Matawalu – I’m not sure anyone knows what to expect!

16. James Tracey (Leinster)
17. Ollie Kebble (Glasgow)
18. Andrew Porter (Leinster)
19. Jean Kleyn (Munster)
20. Marcell Coetzee (Ulster)
21. Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster)
22. Ciaran Frawley (Leinster)
23. Nikola Matawalu (Glasgow)

The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets

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