Pro12 final preview: Can Connacht topple four time champions Leinster?

Its West v East as the domestice rugby season comes to its climax

Pro12 final preview: Can Connacht topple four time champions Leinster?

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan 

Thirteen years on from the brink of extinction, Connacht are facing into their biggest challenge yet.

The Westerners remarkable turnaround of fortunes has been well documented since they started producing front line internationals a couple of seasons ago, in the form of Robbie Henshaw, Nathan White and for a short period Rodney Ah You, to add to captain John Muldoon's lowly three caps earned eight years ago. 

This season has seen the provinces international experience grow further with Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham earning international debuts while Kieran Marmion added further caps to his personal collection. 

With the exception of New Zealander's White and Ah You, Connacht's current internationals all came through their academy, benefiting from the innovative 'Grassroots to Greenshits' initiative launched back in 2013.

The strategy of turning homegrown players into established professionals has been key to establishing a new rugby culture in the city and province that has traditionally held Gaelic Games closer to its heart. 

Connacht's Tiernan O’Halloran, a homegrown product and former Galway minor, scores the winnign try against Glasgow. Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Pat Lam has been key in promoting this idea and has said repeatedly in the past that his side don't need to bring in marquee players from abroad, having faith in the academy system that is in place while a sprinkling of foreign talent gives the Westerners their star quality. 

That quality is in abundance too, with a swashbuckling style of play helping to capture the imagination of an adorning public as they silenced the doubters. 

That sprinkling of talent from abroad has also shown their business savvy, as Bundee Aki, unheralded on these shores prior to this season, is the most lauded player in the league, while fellow Kiwi's Tom McCartney and Jake Heenan performances have been key to their season to date. 

All the structures that have been put in place on and off the field in recent times have been paying dividends and today it all culminates with a chance of toppling four time Pro12 Champions and three time European Champions Leinster in Murrayfield. 

While Connacht's rise has been described as a fairy tale, pundits and fans can't help but feel underwhelmed by Leinster's season, despite finishing top of the table in the regular season.

Their hugely disappointing European campaign and failure to fire on all cylinders for most of the season has cast a shadow of Leinster's season.

With Connacht looking to expand a rugby culture across the West, Leinster have shown that winning is in their's as they ruthlessly put Ulster to the sword last week in the semi-final. 

Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip wins a lineout
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Johnny Sexton showed the watching public why he is one of the most revered out-halves in the game, with his exceptional game management skills coming to the fore once more, while Jamie Heaslip gave his critics a not so gentle reminder that he is still the premiere number eight in Ireland. 

Anticipation has been bubbling nicely for this game, with the neutrals hoping the trophy crosses the Shannon west for the first time to complete a magnificent season for Pat Lam and Connacht. 

However, Leo Cullen's side remain an ultra-experienced, wily outfit with an ability to grind out wins even in the most challenging of circumstances. 

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Dave Kearney
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Ben Te’o
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jonathan Sexton
9. Eoin Reddan

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Mike Ross
4. Ross Molony
5. Mick Kearney
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jamie Heaslip (captain)

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Peter Dooley
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Hayden Triggs
20. Jack Conan
21. Luke McGrath
22. Ian Madigan
23. Zane Kirchner

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Bundee Aki
11. Matt Healy
10. AJ MacGinty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Ronan Loughney
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Aly Muldowney
6. Eoin McKeon
7. Jake Heenan
8. John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan
17. JP Cooney
18. Rodney Ah You
19. Andrew Browne
20. Sean O’Brien
21. John Cooney
22. Shane O’Leary
23. Peter Robb

Referee: Nigel Owens [WRU].