Glasgow will pitch up at the RDS on Saturday intent on repeating the mid-September upset that saw them run out 19-23 winners. They’ll try to forget the 38-13 shellacking they took a couple of months later in the Heineken Cup, when Leinster’s front-liners cleaned their clock and had run up four tries before halftime.
That early season Pro12 loss was a tough outing for the home side. Deprived of fourteen players away at the World Cup on Irish duty, the RDS crowd saw Dominic Ryan and Kev McLaughlin stretchered off mid-second half, with Luke Fitzgerald limping off shortly afterwards.
That was Leinster’s second loss of the season, having taking an absolute whipping in Liberty stadium in the season opener against the Ospreys. It was also their second last. The European champions have only lost one game in the seven months since then [again, to the Ospreys], building up an enormous ten-point lead in the league that allowed them to send a very young team to Newport last weekend and rest a lot of European starters.
With a surprising number of places still up for grabs for the starting XV for the forthcoming Heineken Cup final – Strauss or Cronin at hooker, McLaughlin or Jennings in the backrow, Boss or Reddan at scrum-half, McFadden or Dave Kearney on the left wing – this will be a Leinster team full of players trying to prove a point.
The Mole is pretty sure that Devin Toner will start in the second row. Toner has started three out of the four games between the sides [missing out on selection for the 10-10 draw in Firhill during the Six Nations, but making a noticeable impact off the bench at halftime for his cousin Mark Flanagan] and has performed very credibly against the new golden boy of Scottish rugby, Richie Gray.
Beyond that, it’s hard to tell. Brian O’Driscoll, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Leo Cullen, Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Brad Thorn have been rested for two of the last four games [missing the 54-13 mauling of Edinburgh at the RDS and the weekend’s 18-22 victory at Rodney Parade], while Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D’Arcy and Isa Nacewa have also missed two of the last four – in their cases, the Rodney Parade match and the hard-fought win against Ulster in Ravenhill.
Kev McLaughlin has been involved in the last seven matchday squads but has only started three of them, while Dominic Ryan is fresh from a February comeback after four months out injured. Big Leo Auva’a has played in 19 of Leinster’s 22 Pro12 matches and is well rested, having only started a couple of games in the last six weeks. It’s genuinely very difficult to try and guess what starting lineup Joe Schmidt will send out. He’s got a pretty healthy, well-rested squad and a season-defining final the following week.
However, there’s always the tendency to overthink selections the week in advance of a cup final. Firstly, the most important thing to remember is that if Leinster don’t beat Glasgow, all the effort of the regular season is wasted. They’re out. Like any knock-out game, this is a must-win. With that in mind, you’d have to expect that Schmidt will go with something very like the team that beat Cardiff in the Heineken Cup quarter-final with three exceptions: Fergus McFadden in on the left wing for the injured Luke Fitzgerald; Devin Toner in ahead of Leo Cullen to counteract the lineout threat of Gray and Kellock; and Shane Jennings in ahead of Sean O’Brien.
Glasgow are a feisty, hard-working side with a great coach … who’s mystifyingly on his way out. Nobody can understand why the Glasgow brass don’t realize how lucky they are to have Sean Lineen.
They’re a well drilled outfit, and have conceded just 23 tries in 22 games. That’s the second best defensive record in the league after the Ospreys, who have conceded just one fewer. However, while the Ospreys are a relatively free-scoring bunch, the Weegies aren’t: with just 34 tries scored over the entire league, they’re only ahead of pitiful Aironi, miserly Connacht and the kack-handed Dragons.
Looking down their team-sheet, it’s difficult to see where the tries will come from. Two years ago, the “Killer Bs” – Brown, Barclay and Beattie – were the talk of Scottish rugby, an all-international backrow who played their club rugby together at Glasgow. Now Kelly Brown plays for the Saracens, Beattie’s form has dropped off a cliff and John Barclay is left fighting the good fight on his lonesome. They have a strong second row corps with Gray, captain Alastair Kellock and Tom Ryder, but they’ve neither quality nor depth in the front row. The Scottish front row are all Edinburgh-based, and they got absolutely plowed by Ulster in the recent HEC semi-final in Lansdowne Road.
Lineen has successfully brought through two young outhalves with contrasting styles: the megabooted Duncan Weir  and the flakey-but-gifted Ruaridh Jackson . Weir has the dead-eyed brilliance of the long-term international, but Jackson has something of a spark of unpredictability, and can cause a side big problems. Sometimes that’s the opposition, sometimes it’s his own side.
Up until this season, Graeme Morrison typically caused Gordon D’Arcy a lot of trouble, but that seems to have abated somewhat this season. Outside him, the electric Stuart Hogg has incredible pace and will ask questions of the Leinster defense, especially Brian O’Driscoll. Hogg’s hat-trick against Munster showcased just how fast he is [and that’s ridiculously fast] and O’Driscoll will have to be up in his face and shut him down very early, or he might be left watching a clean pair of heels.
It’s very, very difficult to look beyond Leinster in this game. While Glasgow are diligent defenders, they have a real problem scoring tries. Leinster will go at them and at them and at them from all sorts of positions – that’s how they play in the RDS. This isn’t unheralded territory for Leinster: they’ve had home semi-finals since the play-off system was introduced three seasons ago, and they’ve won both so far. With a hard track in front of a home crowd, the European champions should take this one.