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Sunday May 26, 2019

Pro14 title and Ireland’s feelgood factor on the line

courtesy of RTE

What a difference 12 months make.

Josh van der Flier takes in the unique final surroundings

This time last year Ireland had a Six Nations title, while Leinster, whose players make up the bulk of the national side, had the Heineken Champions Cup in the bag and were on their way to a Guinness Pro14 title.

So Saturday’s showdown at Celtic Park in Glasgow represents the last chance for many of the players to avoid a complete wipe-out of the trophy cabinet.

As much as the players will talk about tight margins deciding matches, the defeats to England, Wales and Saracens hurt more for the manner than the scoreline, i.e. the outcome was obvious long before the final whistle.

For the sake of Irish rugby, as it approaches full World Cup countdown mode after this game, a win is badly needed to boost confidence levels.

Because if the defeats listed above came down to physical batterings, the Warriors present a different challenge and the vista of getting beaten in a more cerebral manner would almost be soul-destroying.

The threat to the reigning champs comes from Glasgow’s imaginative running and kicking game.

LEO CULLEN APOLOGISES FOR GLASGOW RANGERS ‘JOKE’

The 2015 winners posted seven tries in the 50-20 demolition of Ulster, who were admittedly poor in the extreme, in the Scotstoun semi-final with some excellent link-up between forwards and backs doing the damage.

The heads-up style of rugby was what Ireland sorely missed in the Six Nations and with out-half Adam Hastings pulling the strings and Exeter-bound Stuart Hogg always in the thick of things, Leinster will have their hands full.

In some ways Glasgow’s semi-final performance was similar to how Scarlets unpicked the Leinster defence in their 2017 semi-final. Before they knew it that game had slipped from their grasp.

Captain Sexton and team-mates enjoyed the captain’s run yesterday
Leo Cullen has had fair warning.

“Leinster have to play a physical confrontational game and basically pound the hell out of Glasgow every chance they get,” said Eddie O’Sullivan on the RTÉ Rugby podcast this week.

“The fact that it’s in Glasgow means that Glasgow will play with that extra bit of strut that we know they love to [show].

“If you let them do it they can beat any team in the tournament.”

Leinster did well to bounce back from the bruising Champions Cup final loss to Saracens to account for a poor Munster in the semi-final but face a different sort of beast in Dave Rennie’s side.

It’s not that Leinster’s backline has any obvious weaknesses it’s more that their forwards can set the tone, with a powerful and dynamic front row backed up by the work-rate of James Ryan and Scott Fardy in the second row.

Josh van der Flier was man of the match last day out and Jack Conan is arguably in the form of his career.

Keeping it tight early on will give them their best shot at retaining their trophy and claiming a sixth crown.

The sides met once already this season with Leinster suffering their only home defeat, 39-24, in April, albeit with Leo Cullen rotating many of the front-liners out of the starting XV ahead of the following weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final win over Toulouse.

Martin steps down from Offaly post, Kelly named interim

courtesy of RTE

Offaly's Kevin Martin

Joachim Kelly is to take over as Offaly hurling manager on an interim basis after Kevin Martin stepped down from leading the senior side.

Martin came under pressure following a string of bad results which saw his team relegated from Division 1 in the Allianz League and teetering on the brink of the drop to hurling’s third tier.

They have lost both of their games in the tier two Joe McDonagh Cup, the first against Laois and then to Westmeath at the weekend, and now have two games to save their season.

Two-time All-Ireland winner Martin took over before the start of the 2018 season and things began well with a Division 1 win over Dublin at Croke Park in his first game in charge.

But that was the high point and a series of lows have followed, including relegation from the Liam MacCarthy Cup last summer.

Their next game is against Antrim in Tullamore and it’s a must-win match with relegation to the third tier and the Christy Ring Cup a real possibility.

The bottom team in the McDonagh Cup drops down automatically and Offaly currently occupy that spot.

A statement from Offaly GAA read: “Following on from an Offaly GAA Management Committee meeting tonight, Kevin Martin & his management team have been replaced as the current senior hurling management with immediate effect. The committee would like to thank Kevin and his team for their commitment and effort over the last two years.

“Survival in the Joe McDonagh Cup competition in 2019 is essential for the long-term development of hurling in the county.

“To this end Joachim Kelly has been appointed by the management committee as interim manager to the end of this year’s Joe McDonagh Cup competition. We wish Joachim and his team the best of luck in the upcoming games.”

UEFA prepared to back FAI with up to €10m

courtesy of RTE

UEFA are believed to be willing to supply funding to the FAI of up to €10m as the cash-strapped Association continues to deal with its crisis of governance.

SIPTU claimed yesterday that the FAI was on the brink of insolvency and that up to 200 jobs were at risk but the FAI denied that that was a possibility, President Donal Conway revealing that the European body had guaranteed funds to support its “continued viability”.

The football body became engulfed in crisis in March, following the revelation of a €100,000 loan from the then CEO John Delaney to the Association in April 2017.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement is investigating the Association for failure to keep proper books and Sport Ireland have commissioned a full audit of the FAI’s “fitness to handle public funds” after suspending state funding.

There are fears that the legal bill resulting from the recent turmoil could exceed €1m while the FAI’s debt on reconstruction of the Aviva Stadium is understood to be in the region of €30m.

The Governance Review Group that has been established to try and reform the embattled organisation is expected to present a draft report next month to facilitate rule changes ahead of the Association’s AGM in Trim at the end of July.

Hero keeper steers Villa into play-off final as Hourihane scores in shoot-out

courtesy of RTE

Jack Grealish celebrates with hero keeper Jed Steer as Aston Villa went through on penalties

Aggregate 2-2, Villa win 4-3 on penalties

Jed Steer sent Aston Villa into the Sky Bet Championship play-off final after their penalty shoot-out win at 10-man West Brom.

The goalkeeper was the hero, saving from Mason Holgate and Ahmed Hegazi, as Villa won 4-3 on penalties after the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate following Albion’s 1-0 win on the night.

Villa have reached Wembley for a second successive season after losing last season’s final to Fulham but Dean Smith’s side will now face Leeds or Derby in the final on 27 May.

Craig Dawson’s first-half header put the Baggies ahead to level the tie but, after dominating the second half, their hopes disappeared when skipper Chris Brunt was sent off with 10 minutes of normal time remaining.

Albion missed the chance for an instant return to the Premier League and must now resolve the future of caretaker boss Jimmy Shan.

An intense opening failed to conjure any clear chances, although Albion wanted a penalty when the ball struck Anwar El Ghazi.

Villa would have been content with their own efforts as they contained the hosts.

Goalkeeper Steer had nothing to do – until he picked the ball out of the net after 29 minutes.

The Baggies’ quality had failed to match their endeavour as they dearly missed banned 24-goal top scorer Dwight Gayle.

But they opened the scoring with the first serious chance of the game as Villa were undone by a simple throw in.

Mason Holgate tossed the ball to the edge of the six-yard box and Dawson rose to glance a fine header across the prone Steer which bounced in off the post.

The defender was taken off at half-time in the first leg and was sick in the dressing room after feeling dizzy but he gave the Baggies the perfect antidote following their Villa Park defeat.

Villa’s response was limited with John McGinn’s free-kick hitting the wall their only brief threat.
McGinn took issue with Brunt when the midfielder landed studs first on his arm but there was little the Baggies man could do to avoid it.

Villa were rattled and Albion turned up the heat after the break.

Brunt drilled over and then Jacob Murphy intercepted Steer’s pass out only for Tyrone Mings to hook clear into the onrushing Jay Rodriguez with the ball diverting over.

The striker then fired at Steer after 57 minutes and Matt Phillips nodded over soon after with the Baggies well on top.

They needed to make it count though and among the Albion pressure Sam Johnstone turned away El Ghazi’s low 20-yard effort.

But the momentum shifted with 10 minutes left when Brunt was dismissed.

McGinn robbed Hegazi on the edge of the box and Brunt, having been cautioned for an earlier foul on Axel Tuanzebe, recklessly dived in to receive a second yellow card.

Villa sensed their chance and Johnstone pulled off a superb stop to turn Albert Adomah’s snapshot wide with four minutes left.

There was no winner though as the tie went into extra time – Abraham missing the best chance when he headed at Johnstone with three minutes left.

Villa dominated but Albion took them to penalties and Steer saved from Holgate and Hegazi while Adomah missed for Villa before Abraham scored to send them through.

Neville: It can’t be denied that Manchester City are the greatest

courtesy of RTE

Vincent Kompany raises the Premier League trophy

Gary Neville, an eight-time title winner with Manchester United, has admitted Manchester City could be the greatest Premier League team ever.

Pep Guardiola’s men clinched back-to-back crowns on Sunday, edging out Liverpool by a single point after winning all of their final 14 games.

They have now won the league four times in eight years to establish themselves as the dominant force in English football, and could complete an unprecedented domestic treble in Saturday’s FA Cup final.

Asked if they could be considered the best team in the Premier League era, former United and England defender Neville told Sky Sports News: “I think so. There are people who’ll debate that, I would think, but what they have done in this last two years…

“Last year was a great achievement, but when you win back-to-back titles amassing the points that they have, withstanding that challenge that they’ve had from Liverpool, which was relentless right the way to the very end, it makes them a great side.

“Pep Guardiola has come to England and people will mention the Champions League, but I would dismiss that, really.

“To do what he’s done here now in this last two years is unprecedented, it’s incredible. The points tallies are just out of this world and the football he’s played as well, so I think you can say, yes, this is the greatest.

“I like our teams, I like the Chelsea team – there will be people who’ll say, ‘Who is the greatest?’, but what they have done in terms of points, you can’t deny.”

In guiding City to their latest success, former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Guardiola simply enhanced his own reputation and in Neville’s opinion, should be regarded alongside the aristocrats of the English game.

Neville said: “Pep Guardiola, he’s come to England – like I say, there will be people who will question that Manchester City have fallen short in the Champions League, but what he achieved yesterday, and obviously he has a chance next week to win a domestic treble – puts him up there with the great managers.

“Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and now Pep Guardiola really are the great managers of the Premier League era.

“I don’t know how long he’s going to stay in England – I’m sure the other clubs will be hoping he leaves quite quickly – but if he stayed for another two or three years, then he could go on and win another two or three championships easily.”

If there were celebrations in the blue half of Manchester, there was disappointment on Merseyside as Liverpool came up agonisingly short despite losing just one league game all season.

Champions League glory could yet soothe that pain, but Neville insists Liverpool deserve huge credit too after a thrilling campaign.

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