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Stop Sexton, Connacht's fitting finale and more talking points ahead of the Pro12 Grand Final

We’re all set up for a thrilling Pro12 final. Is an upset possible?

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

A fitting occasion to end Connacht’s unbelievable season

LAST SEASON HAD been an exceptionally good one for Connacht.

They turned themselves into a force to be reckoned with on a consistent basis, their loss rate was cut to just 50% and they ran Scarlets close in the chase for a coveted top-six place. It was a commendable effort and their reward was a season that just would not end.

Pat Lam’s men had long since started running on fumes, yet their attacking ethos and insistence on never lying down made the Champions Cup play-off against Gloucester an incredible spectacle… which they lost in extra-time when there was nothing left to give.

This season, Connacht have looked like a side determined to shed that ‘brave in defeat’ trope and their big-game performances are characterised more by a ferocious defensive effort than their attacking invention.

Though they have men who are clearly working a delicate balance to manage themselves in to one game after another, the group as a whole do not look anywhere near spent.

It’s the first Pro12 final outside of Ireland and that’s not ideal for an inter-provincial Grand Final, but Murrayfield is a venue and a name synonymous with rugby and the stadium (even if not jammed to capacity) is capable of stirring up a fervent atmosphere to mark an occasion worth celebrating.

Team-sheets tip the balance slightly to the West

Partly by accident, much less by design, Lam has been able to name an unchanged team for the first time this season. That means  more continuity, fluidity and familiarity – qualities which have never been lacking in the west through the campaign.

(See both team-sheets for tomorrow’s 17.30 kick-off here)

[image alt="John Muldoon talks to his team after the game" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/john-muldoon-talks-to-his-team-after-the-game.jpg" width="100%" height="" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

Leinster, on the other hand, have been forced to delve into the deep, deep depth chart – albeit only as far as their first choice fullback returning from injury – to replace their talismanic captain Isa Nacewa and line-out totem Devin Toner.

Nacewa has been nothing short of a revelation since coming out of retirement last summer. Not only has he led the way in Leinster’s try-scoring stats, but also in the physicality stakes, continuously popping up to make bid hits out wide to beckon the younger, less-experienced blues to join the fray.

Rob Kearney has been struggling with an ankle injury since the final day of the season, so expect Aj MacGinty to offer Robbie Henshaw or Tiernan O’Halloran an early contestable to see the measure of the Ireland fullback.

Out and out hunger versus that familiar feeling

There’s no substitute for a deep-seeded craving to succeed, they say. And they say the same about the experience of having been there and done it all before.

Both are well-worn cliches, but well-worn for a reason.

Leinster showed in last Friday’s semi-final at the RDS that they are more than capable of dialling up the intensity of everything they do when they really fancy burning a team off. Away from Dublin, the conditions will be slightly different, but even though there are fresh faces in blue jerseys with no medals to their name; memories of Heineken Cup victories in Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium and of course Murrayfield are indelibly imprinted in the collective memory.

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[image alt="Jonathan Sexton takes to the pitch 2/4/2016" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/jonathan-sexton-takes-to-the-pitch-242016-3.jpg" width="100%" height="" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

Whatever team-sheet blows Leinster sustain the western province will remain clear underdogs. And from that position they can embark on a very familiar challenge, creating doubt.

Every point on the board, every hit, every advantage won from a kicking exchange will encourage a noise from any non-Leinster supporters in the venue, and, just maybe, make the four-time champions a touch agitated.

One last battle royale in midfield

Leinster’s centre partnership made sure to bite back against their Ulster counterparts last weekend. But as intriguing as that see-saw rivalry was over two contests, the prospect of Pro12 player of the year Bundee Aki coming face to face with Ben Te’o again is absolutely mouthwatering.

[image alt="Bundee Aki has words with Ben Te’o" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/bundee-aki-has-words-with-ben-teo-2.jpg" width="100%" height="" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

At the Sportsground, Aki made sure to hit Te’o with a signal of intent nice and early before Connacht scrapped their way to a 7 – 6 win.

Te’o, who will tour with England this summer, has quietly enjoyed an excellent season. His utter calms while delivering immense physicality and excellent hands after the tackle will be sorely missed by Leinster next season, not least by his midfield partner Garry Ringrose.

And imagine we’ve come this far without mentioning Robbie Henshaw. He is lining up opposite the crown prince of Leinster outside centres tomorrow and will undoubtedly feel he must give his future coach reason to consider him in the 13 channel next season.

More than that, though, Henshaw is one of the great success stories of the Connacht system, and you can bet your over-priced Edinburgh accommodation that he would sincerely love to walk into the Leinster dressing room next season with a shiny new medal that nobody else has.

Sexton class

All over the field you look at the head-to-head match-ups and while you might feel Leinster hold the edge in most, it’s not a stretch to imagine a scenario whereby the Connacht representative gets the upper hand.

Everywhere, that is, except number 10.

Jonathan Sexton is the heartbeat of this Leinster team. He remains Ireland’s best out-half and you sense any Lions coach would place their faith in him again next summer.

On top of all that, the former Racing Metro man looks arguably more comfortable than ever in the basics of his game. He doesn’t have to run loops and break lines to help his team, he can be brilliant as conventional out-half while sitting in the pocket pulling strings. And, to make matters more concerning for Connacht, he’s in serious form both from the tee and with ball in hand.

Stop him and Connacht have a fighting chance. If he gets a chance to control the game, Connacht might just learn how Ulster have felt after big showpiece finals against their friends from the eastern province.

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Sean Farrell

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