While Jack McGrath admits the majority of rugby fans will probably be on the side of Cinderella men Connacht for Guinness PRO12 final glory, the Leinster prop is determined to spoil their party in Edinburgh.
Perennial underdogs Connacht have enjoyed their best-ever season in the Guinness PRO12, notching up their highest-ever finish on their way to a maiden final appearance at BT Murrayfield.
But the history books are certainly on Leinster’s side, and there is no chance they will be overawed by the situation having played in six previous PRO12 finals with a record of won three, lost three.
And with honours even between the sides so far this season, with one win apiece from two encounters, McGrath is adamant this is the contest everyone wanted to see.
“They’ve been pretty tough games the last two games we played them this season,” said the 26-year-old. “I think everyone’s looking forward to it since the final whistle after the Glasgow game on Saturday.
“They’ve been really impressive. Where they’ve come from in three years is a testament to the players and the coaching staff.
“It’s great to see they’re playing some fantastic rugby; they’re up there in the try-scoring stats, they’ve a fantastic defence, they were joint-top with ourselves.
“It’s going to be a tight game. It’s one and two [in the Guinness PRO12 table] playing each other and that’s what everyone wants.
“By all accounts, everyone outside Leinster is supporting Connacht. So they’ll all come out in their droves to support Connacht. Hopefully we’ll have a good patch of Leinster supporters there as well.”
Cullen has made two changes to the starting XV that beat Ulster in the Guinness PRO12 playoffs, with Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner the unlucky men to miss out.
Captain Nacewa has been ruled out with an arm injury sustained against Ulster, and Jamie Heaslip will skipper the side as a result.
That also leaves a space at full-back for Rob Kearney, who returns from the ankle injury suffered in the Round 22 game against Benetton Treviso.
Ben Te’o will play his last game for Leinster at inside centre with Garry Ringrose outside him once again, while scrum-half Eoin Reddan will win his 140th cap in Leinster colours.
Ross Molony comes in for Toner alongside Mick Kearney, meaning Hayden Triggs also comes onto the bench.
Meanwhile, for the first time all season, Connacht coach Pat Lam has made no changes to his matchday squad.
Galway man John Muldoon will captain the side in his 275th game for the province, and tighthead prop Finlay Bealham is the only player to have featured in all 31 games for the province this season.
Lam said: “It’s exciting that this is the first time in 31 games that we’ve been able to name the same match day squad from one week to the next.
“These 23 players are the fortunate ones who have earned the opportunity to wear the jersey and represent their team-mates and the whole of Connacht in our first final.
“Preparation continues to be our big focus this week. We know how tough it will be against Leinster who have a huge amount of experience in finals rugby.
“But we know that if we stick to our structures and systems and channel all the emotion and physicality in to our performance, we have a real chance of making history.”
At BT Murrayfield, 5.30pm Live on Sky Sports and TG4
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 136th competition game, 4th Final)
Assistant Referees: Ian Davies, Ben Whitehouse (WRU)
Officials: 4 Lloyd Linton; 5 Bob Nevins; 6 Tom Mc Nicol (all SRU)
Timekeeper; Paul Cyphus (SRU)
Citing Commissioner: Maurizio Vancini (FIR)
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)
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Connacht became the seventh team to claim the Guinness PRO12 title with a magnificent display at BT Murrayfield, beating Leinster 20-10 to complete a dream season.
In front of a record crowd for a Guinness PRO12 Final of 34,550, Pat Lam’s team scored three tries on the biggest day in their 131-year history.
While they were nervy in the opening exchanges once they got their hands on the ball, Connacht dominated the opening 40 minutes.
Able to open up Leinster with alarming regularity, they scored two fantastic first-half tries, through Tiernan O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun to lead 15-0 at the break.
While Jonathan Sexton cut the deficit with a penalty early in the second half, Matt Healy’s try just before the hour stretched the lead out to 17.
That was cut to ten when Sean Cronin went over to set up a huge last ten minutes but there was to be know comeback as Connacht produced one final effort to see it out.
Leinster actually won the ball from the kick-off and it allowed them to dominate territory early on, Connacht failing to get out of their own 22 for the first seven minutes.
When they did though, it was in typically threatening fashion. Eoin McKeon stole the ball from a lineout, it was shifted to the left and Healy raced away before chipping over the top and forcing Luke Fitzgerald to take it into touch.
They didn’t cross on that occasion but on 12 minutes Connacht did have the first score, and it was a brilliant one. Healy was again the instigator, collecting the ball just inside his 22, evading a string of tacklers before being brought down. Bundee Aki recycled quickly and using the threat of Robbie Henshaw on his shoulder O’Halloran left Rob Kearney trailing to score. AJ MacGinty converted to make it 7-0.
Leinster then lost Mick Kearney after a big collision with Jake Heenan and on 21 minutes Connacht stretched their lead. It started with Henshaw breaking the line. Quick hands between O’Halloran, Aki and then Kieran Marmion opened up space for Adeolokun. The winger chipped over the top and had too much pace for a desperate Eoin Reddan, collecting the ball and scoring. MacGinty couldn’t convert but Connacht led 12-0.
Leinster needed some territory and finally got some only for Connacht to get it back and Adeolokun to get away again. Play was switched allowing Ultan Dillane to do his best impression of winger, crashing through Dave Kearney. Leinster were scrambling and penalised for killing the ball, allowing MacGinty to stretch the lead to 15-0.
Having dominated in attack, Connacht were also proving ferocious in defence, with Sexton on the end of one huge Aki hit, before Dillane did similar on Rhys Ruddock helping them to take that three-score lead into the break.
The one area Leinster had dominated was the scrum, and they opened the second half with a penalty that Sexton slotted to get his team on the board.
That could have been cancelled out when Jordi Murphy failed to roll away from a ruck but MacGinty’s effort from distance fell short.
However Connacht almost had their third try on 52 minutes in unlikely fashion. Tom McCartney broke through the line, left Fitzgerald for dead, but was brilliantly tackled by Sexton just as he looked certain to score. Reddan then came into help hold the hooker up over the line.
They didn’t have to wait long for the next score though, with Healy the man to get it. After a period of possession in the Leinster 22, a perfect grubber from MacGinty bounced kindly into the hands of the winger to cross. The American’s conversion came back off the post but Connacht still led 20-3.
Leinster needed a response and almost had one when replacement Zane Kirchner went over in the corner, but it was called back for a forward pass.
Trailing by three scores it was a long way back but Leinster aren’t a champion side for nothing. After a spell of possession and with O’Halloran receiving treatment, Leinster opened up space on the right and replacement Cronin raced over. Sexton converted from a tricky angle to make it 20-10 going into the last 12 minutes.
Connacht had lost replacement scrum-half John Cooney to injury, leaving Healy to fill in at nine for the closing stages.
However he stepped up admirably, and after a few nervy moments, Connacht were able to play out the final minutes in Leinster territory and seal the famous win.
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