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Friday 9 December 2016

Te'o and Aki lock horns

Connacht's chances of springing an upset come down to the set-piece and gain-line

Leinster powerhouse Ben Te’o and Connacht hero Bundee Aki will come face to face in Edinburgh tomorrow.Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster powerhouse Ben Te’o and Connacht hero Bundee Aki will come face to face in Edinburgh tomorrow.Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster powerhouse Ben Te’o and Connacht hero Bundee Aki will come face to face in Edinburgh tomorrow.Photo: Sportsfile

Attack wins admirers whereas defence wins championships.

For the most part, this has more than a ring of truth about it, especially at the top end of professional rugby where space is at a premium, helping out work without the ball and hindering work with it.

Certainly, this was the impression given by Leinster's decorated No 8 Jamie Heaslip in the immediate aftermath of the PRO12 League semi-final win over Ulster last Friday night.

"It's knockout rugby. The team that makes the fewer mistakes, in general, wins on the day," he said.

For Connacht to complete their miracle season with their first piece of silverware, head coach Pat Lam will need to win the gain-line and break-even at the scrum and at the lineout.

MACHINE-LIKE

He has to continue to swim against the northern hemisphere tide since the grinding advancement of Toulon and the machine-like pressure game of the new European champions Saracens.

Finding the gain-line and set-piece respectability will bring no game-winning guarantees.

However, it will put Connacht in a place to activate a game-strategy that springs out of high-risk, but also high-reward.

To reduce their game-plan to a safety-first outlook would undo three seasons of work and betray all the reasons that have taken them to the home of Scottish rugby.

There will be a host of intriguing battles all over Murrayfield.

These are three of the most important which will be central to the eventual outcome.

BEN TE'O v BUNDEE AKI

29.................AGE.................26

6'2.............HEIGHT............5'10

104kg.........WEIGHT...........92kg

Leo Cullen on Te'o: "Ben is a physical specimen with skills."

Pat Lam on Aki: "He's a warrior."

Leinster's dynamic centre has all the power of a raging bull and the natural offloading game that could be put to the test for England against Australia next month.

What he has not shown is a passing game that would, for instance, best serve Garry Ringrose.

It is too late in the season to manufacture a wide ball mentality, making Leinster somewhat predictable in what they offer through midfield.

The more times the ball is moved to Ringrose, the more deceptive Leinster will be going forward.

The difference between Te'o and Aki is the understanding the latter has for the finer details of the game.

Basically, he can do it all when not stepping outside the attacking and defensive system.

Above that, the former Waikato Chief has an inspirational leadership that makes others retrieve laptops and lost causes. The only question mark comes over the state of his knee which has taken so much punishment in recent weeks.

JACK McGRATH v FINLAY BEALHAM

26.................AGE................24

6'1.................HEIGHT................6'1

118k............WEIGHT...........115k

Leo Cullen on McGrath: "There is a reason Jack is an Ireland international. His work ethic is second-to-none."

Pat Lam on Bealham: "When I first saw Finlay tackle, I thought 'holy heck', and you could see he loved to hit people."

The ongoing difficulties of Cian Healy have enabled McGrath to become Ireland's automatic first-choice at loose-head.

Joe Schmidt has the utmost faith in his attention to detail, the limited number of mistakes and his work rate.

McGrath is Mr Reliable when it comes to carrying out his specific role.

The Australian Bealham has transformed his physique to make significant strides this season.

He is marrying the physical requirements with the more subtle touches typical of the southern hemisphere.

This is the next step in his career, a big game, on a big stage, against a big name.

DEVIN TONER v ALY MULDOWNEY

29................AGE...................32

6'10..............HEIGHT.................6'5

124kg............WEIGHT..............122kg

Leo Cullen on Toner: "A lot of work has gone into making Devin the player he is."

Pat Lam on Muldowney: "He's so important to what we do."

The Ireland lineout caller almost guarantees ball as the tallest player in the PRO12.

There is an under-estimated robust edge to his game, predicated on an all-elbows and knees dimension, that has been evident in patches.

The inbuilt awkwardness in latching onto loose balls in the air can be a positive even though he still gets caught out with poor tackle technique.

The English-born journeyman lock Muldowney is key to Connacht's style as a fine lineout general.

He tends to hold the middle ground in open play when the game evolves as a key decision-maker on the ball.

pro12 final: leinster v connacht, tomorrow (live KO5.30, Sky Sports 3)

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