Leinster in last chance saloon needing a win to keep Rainbow hopes alive

THE LAST RITES for the Pro14 were pronounced on 27 March this year. Experts said there was nothing that could save it, that Leinster were killing off the competition from within.

Champions for a fourth straight year, they recorded a 16-6 victory over Munster in the final, a victory that was way more comprehensive than the scoreline would let you believe. Sixteen games across the regular season had also yielded 14 wins, their two losses excused by the fact their stars were rested those nights.

To put it another way, whenever Leinster needed a win, whenever they wanted one, they got it.

Who’d have believed then that just two months later, they wouldn’t just be drinking in the Rainbow Cup’s last chance saloon, they’d have opened a tab there? Losers on the opening night against Munster – again when their first-teamers were, by and large, sidelined – every match since has been a must-win.

Tonight (v Glasgow, 8.15 kick-off, eir Sport) is no different, except it is not just a must-win; a bonus-point victory is an added necessity – with a couple of footnotes thrown in for good measure.

To reach the Rainbow Cup final, Leinster (nine points from three games) need the following favours: firstly for Ospreys (10 points) to beat Benetton (18 points) next week; secondly for Ospreys to lose to Connacht tonight; thirdly for Zebre to either beat Munster (15 points) next week or alternatively to lose without the concession of a try bonus point.

If all that happens – and it’s a mighty big if – Leinster then need one further miracle, namely to ensure their points differential improves significantly from its current status of plus nine to a position where it is superior to Munster’s and Benetton’s. For the record, Munster have a points differential of plus 52, Benetton’s is plus 47.

In this context, it isn’t a win Leinster need to deliver in Scotstoun but a massacre – which won’t be straightforward, not just because the Warriors have their Scottish internationals available again but also because they too have their own aspirations of reaching the final.

The truth is they’re unlikely to fulfill those. The other truth is that failing to make a Rainbow Cup final will cause a similar degree of hurt to Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster as the kind Pep Guardiola endured when Manchester City didn’t reach this year’s FA Cup final. They’ve all bigger fish to fry.

Still, for a few of the Leinster contingent, these nights count. Take the O’Brien pair. Jimmy, the older of the two, is 24 now, enjoying the best of his three seasons with Leinster, graduating from the bench in year one to the starting team for eight of their games in year two.

Jimmy O’Brien has a chance to impress. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This time around he has featured in 14 matches, two of those being Champions Cup games, another five being interpro derbies. He was also there on the night they lost to Connacht so he knows what a silent dressing room is like to sit in.

And he also knows something else, that if you are to convince Cullen you deserve another bite at the biggest games, you have to deliver in these ones. Jordan Larmour did, making his debut in September 2017, coming off the bench that December in the back-to-back Champions Cup games against Exeter. Look where he is now.

Caelan Doris is another who worked his way up. He got 19 minutes action in the 2017/18 season, 913 in 2018/19, two of those minutes coming against Toulouse in a Champions Cup semi. A year later he was starting those European knock-out games.

Tommy O’Brien has a way to go before he reaches that level. But matches like this – his 10th for the club – are gateways to bigger days.

Tommy O’Brien makes his 10th appearance. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ask Luke McGrath. The Leinster captain wins his 150th cap for the province tonight, nine years after his debut, another game in May, long forgotten at this stage by everyone bar the McGrath family.

He’d have to wait a year for his first start, another 17 months after that for his second. Now he’s indispensable to them, lasting the full 80 minutes in six of their games this season, going beyond the 75-minute mark in another four, clocking up 1353 minutes in a Leinster shirt in 2020/21. Fellow scrum-halves, Jamison Gibson Park and Rowan Osborne, have managed just 376 between them.

That’s why tonight’s game isn’t just a date in the diary, something to do before the weekend starts. For sure a win will neither define nor save Leinster’s season – it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t strive for it, though.

Glasgow Warriors: Adam Hastings, Kyle Steyn, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, Cole Forbes, Ross Thompson, George Horne; Aki Seiuli, Fraser Brown, Enrique Pieretto, Rob Harley, Scott Cummings, Ryan Wilson, Rory Darge, Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: George Turner, Tom Lambert, D’arcy Rae, Kiran McDonald, Thomas Gordon, Sean Kennedy, Stafford McDowall, Niko Matawalu.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan, Tommy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Rory O’Loughlin, Jimmy O’Brien, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (CAPT); Ed Byrne, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, James Ryan, Josh Murphy Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

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Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Peter Dooley, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Scott Penny, Rowan Osborne, Jordan Larmour, Cian Kelleher.

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)

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