AFTER 152 games only two teams remain in the race to be crowned as the first champions of Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales at the Guinness PRO14 Final on May 26.
It has been another terrific season as the Guinness PRO14 continues to go from strength to strength with attendances up 16 per cent, another new try-scoring record set with a tally of 861 while in European competition teams from the Championship continued to best their rivals from other leagues.
The introduction of the Conference format means that more teams will compete in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series, with six teams involved compared to four in previous seasons.
This means more jeopardy and more drama than ever before at the tail-end of the season which is renowned for producing incredible rugby.
As Leinster Rugby and Scarlets meet for the sixth time in a little over 12 months, the final chapter appears to be nowhere in sight as the two teams build on their modern-day rivalry.
Today’s plot revolves around Leinster aiming to create a piece of history by completing a domestic and European double and Scarlets focused on retaining their Championship crown and claiming back-to-back titles.
But it is the sub-plots that make this fixture a classic in the making. Firstly, we have the architects of both teams that bring a worldview and mould it to fit their local values.
At Leinster, head coach Leo Cullen and senior coach Stuart Lancaster have maximised the talent pouring out of the province’s academy and matched it well with the plethora of international talent among their established ranks. Competition for places is intense, the game plans are shrewd and the players are powered by a relentless motivation.
Power and finesse, this Leinster crop – the new European Champions – have it in spades.
Across the aisle in the opposing coach box and Wayne Pivac, the former police man from New Zealand, has some very able lieutenants in Stephen Jones (attack coach) and Byron Hayward (defence coach) have forged a smart, agile and daring team in Llanelli.
Scintillating play is Scarlets’ calling card but it is based upon Kiwi values that ensure the opposition breakdown is raided at every opportunity and offloading ability is the main passport into the starting XV.
There’s also a steely bond among the team that is best manifested in their defence, as Leinster will attest to, the red line refused to buckle in the RDS Arena during last season’s Guinness PRO12 Semi-Final.
Scarlets used that historic away win as a springboard to the title, Leinster used it as motivation to come back harder this season.
When it mattered most in the Champions Cup Semi-Final in Dublin last month, Leinster blew the doors off but it’s difficult to imagine Scarlets allowing lightning to strike twice.
The playing ranks of both sides can safely be described as elite. British & Irish Lions sprinkle both squads while many of the players are used to going at each other toe-to-toe in the Six Nations when Ireland and Wales face each other.
There are icons on both teams bidding farewell, too. Leinster captain Isa Nacewa is due to bow out ahead of retirement and back row Jordi Murphy is departing for Ulster.
Scott Williams will play his last game for Scarlets before moving to Ospreys while John Barclay misses out through injury ahead of his switch to Edinburgh.
Scarlets also come into this game with their free-flowing style of play showing no signs of blunting.
The Welsh region have scored over 100 points in their last three games while in comparison Leinster have not scored more than 16 points in any of the previous four outings.
As for knock-out form, Leinster have won 50% of the last four Championship games while Scarlets are a perfect four from four.
Form guides, however, are only an accurate measure of the past and on an occasion such as the Guinness PRO14 Final nothing is certain beyond the prospect of a tantalising contest between two of the Championship’s very best teams.
Did you know?
Leinster are 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.
Leinster have played in seven previous Championship finals, winning three and losing four, just one of those was at Lansdowne Road/Aviva Stadium, beating Munster there 24-20 in 2001.
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.
Leinster’s only defeat in Dublin to a Welsh Region since February 2015 was in last season’s semi-final, to today’s opponents, Scarlets, at the RDS Arena. Scarlets, the defending Guinness PRO14 Champions, are bidding to win the title for a third time – only Leinster have ever retained the Championship title, having done so in 2013 and 2014.
The Scarlets Region have played in just three previous finals in all competitions, losing to Munster at Lansdowne Road in the Celtic Cup final in 2005, and being beaten by Wasps at Twickenham in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final in 2006.
Last season they overcame Munster in the PRO14 final at Aviva Stadium. Scarlets have lost on all four occasions they have visited Ireland in all tournaments this season.
The two sides have met on three occasions this season, twice in the Guinness PRO14, with Leinster winning 20-13 at the RDS in February and drawing 10-all at Parc y Scarlets in March.
Leinster also beat Scarlets 38-15 in the semi-final of the European Champions Cup at Aviva Stadium in April.
The two sides have met three times before at Lansdowne Road/Aviva Stadium with Leinster victorious on each occasion including two regular season fixtures in the PRO14 in March 2005 and April 2006.
The Man With The Whistle
South African Stuart Berry will lead a team of neutral match officials for the Guinness PRO14 Final.
Having joined the Guinness PRO14 Elite Referee Squad from Super Rugby after the tournament expanded into South Africa this season, Berry took charge of the Semi-Final fixture between Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby last weekend.
Berry, who has refereed 11 international games, will be assisted by Marius Mitrea (FIR) as Assistant Referee 1 and Mike Adamson (SRU) as Assistant Referee 2.
Neil Paterson of the SRU will serve as the Television Match Official. The appointments for the Guinness PRO14 Final also ensure the criteria of capability and neutrality have been achieved across all six games in this season’s Final Series where the match official teams (Referee, AR1, AR2 & TMO) have included the best from all five participating unions throughout the knock-out stages.
International referees Nigel Owens (WRU), George Clancy (IRFU), John Lacey (IRFU), Stuart Berry (SARU) and Marius Mitrea (FIR) have all been in charge of Guinness PRO14 Final Series games while the SRU’s Mike Adamson has been an assistant referee in each round.
Greg Garner, Elite Referee Manager, Guinness PRO14 said: “These appointments are a significant step for the Guinness PRO14 in that we can balance the need for neutral officials with capability for our showpiece game. Stuart has refereed 13 games in the Championship this season which adds to his experience in Super Rugby and at international level.
“We have a number of goals when it comes to our match officials and creating a deeper pool of talent that extends across Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales is one of the top priorities. The addition of South African referees to the Guinness PRO14 has provided us with a broader roster to select from and allowed us to name an all-neutral panel of match officials for this weekend.
“It’s very satisfying that in all six Guinness PRO14 Final Series games we have appointed fully neutral match official teams because in the past in the past referees have been brought in from England and France to officiate the Championship decider. In fact, only one referee appointment in the past eight Finals has been non-neutral. Stuart’s selection is great news because he is used to the style of play in the Guinness PRO14 and will be more familiar with our Finalist teams.”
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said: “We are immensely proud of Stuart and we know he will represent South Africa with aplomb in Dublin on Saturday. His appointment to the final of the Guinness PRO14 is well-deserved and we believe it underlines the fact that our entry into this exciting competition in the Northern Hemisphere had been a great success.
“We made many new rugby friends from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy, and I believe we also made our presence felt in this tough competition, in many ways. We’d like to wish Stuart and his colleagues well for Saturday’s game, as well as Leinster Rugby and Scarlets, in what promises to be a great showcase and wonderful end to the Guinness PRO14 season.”