THERE was – perhaps – a time when the PRO14 (or its various precursors) was regarded as not much more than afterthought for the major Irish province of Leinster, when stood against the prospect of Heineken Champions Cup glory.
That might even still be the case.
But given that Saracens pulverised the Dubliners 10-20 in Newcastle two weeks ago to claim the European crown, there is absolutely no doubting the increased determination within the Irish team to raise themselves this weekend in order to make sure that they don’t finish the season empty handed.
And that could spell bad news for Glasgow Warriors, who face Leinster in the PRO14 Grand Final at Celtic Park on Saturday evening. Certainly, if the Leinster’s vice-captain Rhys Ruddock is to be believed, the four times champions are more motivated and more acutely aware of the need to deliver in this one-off match than they have ever been.
“Obviously, there was massive disappointment on the back of the loss to Saracens – there is a big contrast to this time last year when we had won the Champions Cup and were trying to regenerate excitement,” he said. “This year, having lost a final in Europe, nothing is more important than this weekend and trying to get some silverware out of what has been a very positive season so far.
“I think the main thing [we took from that game] was to try and stick together. We were all hugely disappointed but knew it was going to take a squad effort to try and get through it. We tried to bring as much energy as we could to last weekends’s PRO14 play-off semi-final win over Munster, and to make sure that we got another useful week.
“We probably took some lessons from the way Saracens defended, they brought a huge amount of energy and line speed that was hard to play against. Whether or not you are able to change things in a week or two, it’s definitely an area we have focused on and will continue to focus on…that line speed.
Ruddock pointed out that Leinster have played 55 players during the course of this season, which os why the loss through a knee injury of a player of the calibre of second-row Devin Toner is a set-back but by no means disastrous.
“It is a massive loss, he has such a presence within the team – his ability to call the line-outs and run the forward pack is huge – but we are lucky that the coaches have invested a lot of time in the likes of James Ryan and Ross Maloney, guys who are more than capable of running the line-outs,” he reasoned. “I think a lot of credit has to go to the coaches for having faith in them at a young age and giving them responsibilities.
“Over the last few years there has been a big focus on building depth in the squad and bringing through young players so we can fight on both fronts, that is hugely important to us at the club.
Ruddock and his Leinster team-mates know thatchy are up against a team in a rich vein of form at the moment, and that when the Warriors click as an attacking force they are very hard to cope with, but all they can do is trust in their own game and believe that their ability to impose themselves on matches can help them claim a a fifth PRO14 title.
“Our principal has to be not to change too much from what we do,” he said. “I think we have to be able, as smart rugby players, to make decisions as to when it is a good idea to contest the breakdown and when it is not. We have looked at Glasgow’s attack, how they are capable of pulling guys from deep when receiving kick-offs in their own 22 so that they can run it back at you and make opportunities.
“I think the most important thing is our decision-making around the breakdown. When it is on, when it is not, which side of the ruck to go with Stuart Hogg and Adam Hastings – who like to sweep and pick out mismatches in the defence. It is definitely something we have been looking at because they have an unbelievable attack and are really exciting to watch … and hard to play against.
“You can see that the likes of Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray and Rob Harley are really physical, and I don’t think they will be afraid of going toe-to-toe with anyone. That is definitely an area we have seen improvement in their game. They have improved and can go toe-to-toe with the best. It’s definitely a strength of theirs and an aspect of the game that we have to be mindful about.'”