September 12, 2020, will go down in history as the strangest rugby final ever in Ireland. There was nothing at all odd about the sight of Leinster picking up a trophy – Saturday night’s celebration was their 11th such victory in 13 seasons. What was weird, though, was the lack of public adulation accompanying this latest Leinster PRO14 triumph.
Previously won league honours were cheered to the rafters by adorning spectators, a combined 93,000 at recent showpieces in Glasgow and Dublin, but such was the effect of the pandemic restrictions currently in place in Ireland, you were hard-pressed to twig there was a game of magnitude taking place at the weekend.
Heading to Irish rugby HQ from the Ringsend direction, what caught the RugbyPass eye were Liverpool and Leeds jersey wearers stood outside the few watering holes open along the way, smoking cigarettes and having a natter before the TV football from England got started.
The rugby? Bar a few blue flags attached to some lamp posts as you approached the Dodder and a handful of fanatics waiting to cheer the passing team bus as it entered the Aviva, this was a showpiece robbed of the atmospheric hustle and bustle of league final day, something recorded in all its technicolour glory in the behind the scenes RugbyPass documentary on the 2018 decider featuring Leinster at the same ground.
Even the aftermath Saturday night was rather tame. It was 9.34pm when GALA’s Freed From Desire blared over the PA system as the trophy was classy lifted by departing long-serving duo, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) September 12, 2020
But after a follow-up blast of the Quo’s Rockin’ All Over The World, that was that. Out came the stadium crew to quickly disassemble the PRO14 trophy presentation stage and Leinster disappeared down the tunnel, their celebrations restricted to a few dressing room beers before they get back to work with Saracens due in town next Saturday for the rescheduled European quarter-final.
It was a pity Leinster’s invincible league campaign had finished so anonymously but they would rather that than nothing at all, and quite the bromance currently exists between them and the PRO14 organisers who are well aware they are the tournament’s greatest drawcard.
“Comparisons have been made by some with the Ajax team of the 1970s and 80s where their dominance was built by a conveyor belt academy that delivered top-class players to the first team year after year,” enthused PRO14 boss Martin Anayi in the final’s digital match programme. “Leinster are arguably one of the best club sides in the world and that sets a high bar for everyone in the Guinness PRO14.”
Leinster boss Leo Cullen reciprocated when he eventually beamed in for the virtual post-match presser from the stadium bowels, chuffed that they had a title to play for given it looked for a while their campaign had terminated with the February 28 RDS destruction of Glasgow.
“Credit has to go to Guinness PRO14 organisers to get this condensed schedule out which is two pretty full-on derby games which leads into semi-final and final. It’s a nice clean end to the season, so huge amount of credit has to go to the tournament organisers. The were very proactive right from the off… it might have been easier to say, ‘We’ll cut our losses here and move onto the following season’.”
The now completed restart to the 50-week season that commenced last year in late September has enabled Leinster to enter the pantheon as the league’s greatest ever side, the unprecedented 63-game title hat-trick broken down into 50 wins, two draws and just eleven losses across the three seasons.
It’s a consistency that is an enviable monument to rotation freshness, an ability to keep the squad ticking over in a fashion that doesn’t much affect collective performance no matter what the personnel available on any given weekend. Saturday night’s 27-5 win over Ulster provided further evidence. Talisman Johnny Sexton had epitomised so much that is good about Leinster at this business end of the tournament over the years.
Man of the match in the 2018 decider win over Scarlets, numerous PRO14 showpiece categories were topped by him coming into the 2020 final – most minutes played in finals (538), most points (76), most penalty goals (20), most conversions (8). But all those metrics mattered not a jot when it came to Cullen deciding his team would be best served by benching Sexton and starting Ross Byrne instead.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) September 12, 2020
By the time the 35-year-old did step into the fray on the hour, the result was already decided with Leinster dominating, 20 points to 5 clear and Ulster wishing they hadn’t poked the bear with the brilliantly taken fourth minute try that was ultimately their only score.
There will be cribs that Leinster are far too good for the PRO14 in its current guise but rather than spin that as a negative, their hegemony should be embraced as a positive and their high standard something rivals should aspire to rather than complain about.
Their latest title triumph now beautifully sets the scene for next weekend, the juggernaut collision of the PRO14’s new hat-trick champions and Saracens, winners of the English Premiership in four of the five past seasons and reigning European champions whose reputation has been tarnished by the grubby salary cap scandal.
It’s one not to be missed – even though you will again be hard pressed again to twig a game of magnitude is taking place at an empty stadium pining for its raucous celebration days of old.
Leo Cullen's Invincibles go marching on ? https://t.co/624IRbw2Ll
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 12, 2020
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