Leinster ruled the roost in the Guinness PRO14 once again as they squeezed past Glasgow Warriors to retain their crown in a dramatic finale at Celtic Park.
Despite going into the semi-finals without a league win since the start of March, Leo Cullen’s men showed their class with hard-earned victories over Munster and the Warriors on their way to their sixth domestic title.
Regardless of their mixed form in the latter stages of the regular season, the 13-point gap between them and Ulster at the top of Conference B demonstrates that their quality cannot be underestimated.
With the ink dry on another stellar season, the Dublin side will be looking to secure a record-breaking third consecutive Guinness PRO14 Championship next year.
Unsurprising for a side that have claimed back-to-back titles, Leinster boast strength in depth across all areas of the field.
Their ability to retain possession and grind teams down has been evident throughout the campaign, Leinster carrying the ball 3,569 times over the course of the season – the highest of any team in the division.
This, coupled with their league-topping ruck success rate of 98.4 per cent, means they carried the ball more and turned it over less than any other team.
Cullen’s side also scored 714 points and 99 tries across the season to top the charts there too, showing their clinical accuracy.
On top of that, 3,783 tackles at a success rate of 90 per cent demonstrates Leinster’s solid defence and the difficulty teams faced when they did have the opportunity to run at their back line.
Areas to improve
Leinster were somewhat lucky to have effectively wrapped up top spot by the turn of the new year, and despite going on to retain first place and indeed the title, their collapse in form did raise questions about their consistency.
Having lost four of their last nine regular Guinness PRO14 fixtures – including a 39-24 defeat at home to eventual runners-up Glasgow in April – Leinster will be eager to produce consistent, high-level performances throughout the next campaign.
Following defeat against Saracens in the European Rugby Champions Cup final a week earlier, questions were asked about Leinster’s ability to go again in their Guinness PRO14 semi-final against a Munster team who had pushed Glasgow all the way in Conference A.
The Warriors dominated the opening half of the Guinness PRO14 final, and it took a display of courage and experience for Leinster to emerge victorious.
Sean Cronin scored the game’s first try to bring the clash to life early in the second half as Leinster grew in confidence as the match went on.
James Lowe – who had been sin-binned earlier in the match – went over in the dying moments to put any doubt to bed and set Cullen’s men on their way to claiming consecutive titles.
Former Ireland under-20 international Max Deegan capped off a terrific breakthrough season by being named the club’s young player of the year.
The 22-year-old number eight made 21 appearances for the Dublin side during the season, scoring six tries and notching an impressive successful tackle rate of 94 per cent.
Deegan is the latest in a long list of stellar back-rowers to emerge from the Leinster academy and he has been tipped to eventually break into the senior Ireland squad as his development continues.
Cullen has described him as a ‘serious talent’ and Deegan will be eager to build on a solid season by establishing himself in the starting XV next time out.
Winger Lowe notched the game-winning try in the semi-final against Munster, and his influence has steadily become invaluable to Leinster.
After missing out on big Champions Cup squads to fellow New Zealander Jamison Gibson-Park last season, and indeed being absent in last year’s Bilbao final, Lowe has been successful in his mission to prove undroppable this term.
With seven tries from 11 appearances this season, Lowe has demonstrated a level of power and skills that other Guinness PRO14 wingers have found hard to match.
Lowe will be hoping to further exert his influence next season as he aims to string a larger number of appearances together and challenge for league-topping statistics.
21 new contracts have been signed in total at Leinster ahead of the new season, including seven for players who have been promoted to the senior squad.
Ciaran Frawley, Hugo Keenan, Ronan Kelleher, Conor O’Brien, Jimmy O’Brien, Hugh O’Sullivan and Scott Penny all make the step up, while Cian Kelleher joins his younger brother from Connacht.
The older Kelleher sibling left the Leinster academy in 2016 and has since scored 14 tries in 54 appearances – but makes the move back to Dublin where he played seven times previously.
“It’s a great opportunity for the players that are here.” 🙌@jimmyobrien88 speaks about growing up playing rugby at @NaasRFC, making his #LeinsterRugby debut and returning for pre-season as a senior player. 👇#FromTheGroundUp pic.twitter.com/XISuWhxhjp
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) 2 July 2019
Seven players have left the RDS Arena, including Ireland internationals Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath.
O’Brien has made the move to English Championship winners London Irish as they embark on their first season back in the Premiership, while McGrath has moved North to Ulster.
Nick McCarthy, Tom Daly, Noel Reid, Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney have also moved on to pastures new.