And so all eyes turn to Dublin and the Aviva Stadium for the final match of a fascinating Guinness PRO14 season.
It’s the game we’ve all been waiting for, the most anticipated match of the season, as the defending champions take on the European champions in what is shaping up as a stunning contest.
After 152 games throughout the regular season it has come down to Leinster and Scarlets – two familiar foes locking horns once again.
What’s at stake? Having been beaten by Scarlets in the semi-finals last year, Leinster will be eager for the chance to redeem themselves and make sure the men from Llanelli don’t win back-to-back titles.
However, having been knocked out of European rugby in the semi-final in the same stadium this season by Leinster, Scarlets will have similar fuel for revenge.
When the two sides last met in the Guinness PRO14 it couldn’t have been more intense, with a last-minute penalty from Dan Jones ensuring they shared the points with a 10-10 tie at Parc y Scarlets.
They finished tied on 70 points at the top of Conference B in the regular season, have already met three times this season, and six times in the last 12 months. It’s almost impossible to split these two teams in what is becoming a fascinating rivalry. And this might just be the biggest one yet.
Team news (Leinster) This will be Leinster captain Isa Nacewa’s final game before retirement and he remains at inside centre while Jonathan Sexton returns at No.10.
Jordi Murphy is also playing his final game for Leinster before his move to Ulster, but he has to settle for a spot on the bench as Jack Conan, Dan Leavy and Rhys Ruddock get the nod in the back row.
Elsewhere, Rob Kearney is back in the No.15 jersey alongside Jordan Larmour and James Lowe, man of the match against Musnter last time out.
Team news (Scarlets) Scott Williams will play his last game for Scarlets before moving to Ospreys and he joins Hadleigh Parkes – who is making his 100th appearance for the region – in the centres.
John Barclay misses out through injury ahead of his switch to Edinburgh so Tadhg Beirne moves back from lock to No.8 and Lewis Rawlins comes into the second row.
Leigh Halfpenny is also reintroduced at full-back after injury meaning Johnny McNicholl moves to the wing in place of Tom Prydie.
Talking points This season saw another new try-scoring record set with a tally of 861 in the Guinness PRO14. And Wayne Pivac is hoping for a few more yet:
“They’re a very good side. We only have to look back to our semi final where we were completely outplayed. They’ve gone on to win the big prize and be crowned Euro champions, and deservedly so.
“To back that up against a good Munster team, not an easy task a week later after celebrations and euphoria of winning it, was to me a testament to how strong that squad is, they’ll be better this weekend with some guys freshened up.
“We’re expecting a massive game. It’s a massive challenge for us but I think it’s a great game, last year’s PRO12 champions up against this year’s European champions. If you want to win it you want to do so against the best.”
The Leinstermen have won their last eight matches at Aviva Stadium in all tournaments since losing there to Toulon in the pool phase of the 2015/16 European Champions Cup.
They are also seeking to become Guinness PRO14 Champions for the fifth time, and become the first non-English or French side to claim a domestic title and European Cup double in the same season.
“This is the game. This is the game that we’ve worked towards all season.
“We want to deliver, so we’ve had to recover well and prepare as well as we can to give ourselves the best chance for the game.”
“You can see all the qualities Scarlets have – they’re very dangerous in terms of when opportunities come along and they’re very clinical at taking them.
“Their skill set is good they execute opportunities. They go hard at the breakdown in particular, so they look very strong once again.
“The first 10 to 15 minutes is huge in these finals, or semi-finals for that matter.
“Everyone has worked incredibly hard to get the group back to this level. It’s a great week for us and we just want to make sure we do everything in our power to give ourselves the best chance.”
Key battle – Jack Conan v Tadhg Beirne
These two No.8s will be teammates for Ireland this summer in Australia.
But before they join forces, their head-to-head will cause sparks in Dublin on Saturday evening.
Beirne, desperate to help Scarlets defend their title before he departs for Munster, is the turnover king. He ended the regular season with 37, 15 more than any other player in the Guinness PRO14.
And after lining up at lock in the semi-final win over Glasgow, he shifts back to No.8 after John Barclay’s injury.
Leinster managed to neutralise Beirne in their European semi-final and Conan will be hoping they can do the same with their brutally efficient pack.
The No.8 has battled for game time with Jordi Murphy in recent weeks but now gets his chance to shine on the big stage.
Key fact: Scarlets have scored over 100 points in total from their last three games while in comparison Leinster have not scored more than 16 points in any of their previous four outings. As for knock-out form, Leinster have won 50 per cent of the last four Championship games while Scarlets are a perfect four from four.
Did you know? Leinster’s only defeat in Dublin to a Welsh Region since February 2015 was in last season’s semi-final, to Scarlets, at the RDS Arena. Plus, Scarlets have lost on all four occasions they have visited Ireland in all tournaments this season.
LEINSTER RUGBY: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa (Capt), James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracey, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Jordi Murphy, Nick McCarthy, Joey Carbery, Rory O’Loughlin.
SCARLETS: Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steffan Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens (Capt), Samson Lee; Lewis Rawlins, Steven Cummins; Aaron Shingler, James Davies, Tadhg Beirne.
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Werner Kruger, David Bulbring, Will Boyde, Jonathan Evans, Daniel Jones, Tom Prydie.
Referee: Stuart Berry (SARU, 14th Championship appearance)
AR1: Marius Mitrea (FIR). AR2: Mike Adamson (SRU).
TMO: Neil Paterson (SRU).
Sky Sports Action (Ch 407): 17:30
SuperSport 1: 18:25 (SA Time)
Eurosport Player: 19:00 (Italy)
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Prices start at just €35 at www.ticketmaster.ie with tickets available to suit every experience.
To book hospitality visit: https://www.pro14rugby.org/hospitality
For Travel packages visit: https://www.pro14rugby.org/travel-packages
For Fanzone & Dublin 7s visit: http://www.dublin7sfestival.ie
Johnny Sexton pulled the strings as Leinster completed a domestic and European double by downing the defending champions, Scarlets, 40-32 at the Aviva Stadium to clinch the Guinness PRO14.
As he so often is, Sexton was the catalyst for everything good that Leinster did, producing a masterclass of tactical kicking to stop the Scarlets from employing their attacking game plan for much of the game.
The Welsh side resisted until right on the stroke of half-time but James Lowe’s try to make it 21-11 seemed to take the wind out of their sails in front of what was a record crowd for a Guinness PRO14 final of 46,092.
Prior to Lowe’s effort, Devin Toner had got Leinster’s first try, with Sean Cronin, Jordan Larmour and Jack Conan following suit after the break.
Where this Leinster side ranks alongside the previous European champions is up for debate but in terms of depth, they must surely be first.
And where previous Leinster teams had failed, this one has now followed up European success with Guinness PRO14 glory, the first team in the competition’s history to do so.
A year ago, it was the Scarlets who blew away Munster in such impressive fashion in this ground. On this occasion, they simply had no answer for a relentless Leinster, although Johnny McNicholl scored a hat-trick in a losing cause, with Werner Kruger also crossing.
In a battle of the defending champions and the European champions, the only thing that was sure before kick-off was that there would be no shortage of quality.
That was certainly how it transpired, with Leinster flying out of the blocks and piling the pressure on their opponents.
An early Luke McGrath break led to a Scarlets offside, converted by Sexton, but that was soon cancelled out when Tadhg Furlong was pinged for pulling back Rob Evans and Leigh Halfpenny levelled.
The Scarlets full-back gave his team the lead shortly after for offside but Leinster were not behind for long.
A brilliant high catch from Rob Kearney, ahead of Halfpenny, set up the Dublin side for three more points.
With the scores level, Leinster lost skipper Isa Nacewa to injury, a sad way to go out for a club legend in the final game of his career.
Rory O’Loughlin replaced him and Leinster were soon back in front, Sexton slotting another penalty when the Scarlets drifted offside.
And on the half-hour, Leinster scored the first try thanks to their second row Toner, only his fourth-ever in the competition.
It all stemmed from a break by Conan off the back of a scrum in the Leinster 22. They then marched inexorably up the field before Toner powered his way over from close range. Sexton missed the conversion but Leinster led 14-6.
The momentum appeared to be with Leinster, but the Scarlets are not champions for nothing and they came back with a searing break by McNicholl. The Leinster defence held initially but once the ball was recycled, Gareth Davies had the strength to get over with McNicholl eventually getting it down. Halfpenny’s conversion was off-target but Leinster lead was down to three.
Right on the stroke of half-time, Leinster were over again through winger Lowe.
After initially attacking through their maul, the Irish side went down the short side, with McGrath finding Sexton who passed immediately for Lowe to cross in the corner. Sexton’s touchline conversion curled in to make it 21-11 at the break.
Leinster started the second half as they had the first, piling on the pressure, although this time they turned down a simple penalty in search of a third try, only to be denied.
They were not to be kept out for long though. A brilliant kick to the corner from Sexton set Leinster up five metres out and although the Scarlets stopped their maul, there was no stopping Cronin from peeling off and gleefully diving over.
Larmour’s effort on the hour was a magnificent individual effort. Under pressure out wide, he kicked over the top, outpaced the covering defence and scooped up the ball one-handed before dotting down. Sexton’s conversion was off-target but it mattered little. Leinster were 33-11 up and in complete control.
To their credit, the Scarlets kept fighting, and McNicholl produced a brilliant finish to get their second try of the afternoon.
However, any thoughts of a comeback were extinguished by Conan when he ran in try number five 12 minutes from time after Joey Carbery’s break. Carbery’s conversion made it 40-18.
The Scarlets had the final say with Kruger bludgeoning his way over from close range before McNicholl completed his hat-trick after a magnificent length-of-the-field counter-attack.
But it was to be Leinster’s day and Leinster’s season as they were crowned Guinness PRO14 champions.