Leinster to hold on but it'll be a battle
RUGBY:THIS IS it then. Move over the rest of Europe, as for one day at any rate, a little green corner of south west London will be Irish. That it is Twickenham which is hosting this historic first meeting of Leinster and Ulster in the blue riband of the European club game merely adds to the barefaced Irish cheek of it all. You gotta love it.
As a one-off all-Irish final, it is also an intriguing clash of styles and more besides. Leinster are the high achievers, on the verge of emulating Leicester over a decade ago as the only team to defend the Heineken Cup and, by dint of winning it for an unprecedented third time in four years, earning themselves the accolade of best Heineken Cup winners of all. Ulster are breezing into their first final since the victorious campaign of 1999 and revelling in their outsiders status.
As the most potent and entertaining side around, Leinster bring real sparkle, although their defence is usually very efficient as well, whereas Ulster have reached this stage by dint of a ferocious, high octane defence, the best lineout in the competition and the metronomic place-kicking of Ruan Pienaar.
Leinster arrive here the more battle-hardened, albeit with Brian O’Driscoll playing eight days after minor keyhole surgery to his knee and with question marks surrounding the wellbeing of Rob Kearney, and, of course, missing the injured Luke Fitzgerald and Eoin O’Malley.
Comparatively rested, Ulster pitch up at full-strength, and hence Brian McLaughlin again highlighted how this is the first time in the last couple of years that both sides have been at optimum level.
He would also take comfort in this, as Ulster have never had more than nine of this starting line-up at kick-off time in any of the five defeats out of five they have suffered to the reigning champions under his watch. In their 16-8 defeat to Leinster at Ravenhill last month, Ulster were missing half their pack – Rory Best, John Afoa, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry, and still made it an arm wrestle.
Ulster’s nervy semi-final win over Edinburgh is probably the least relevant of their European form to date, given they were missing Afoa and Henry, while seeming a little weighed down by favouritism and the expectancy of a huge home crowd at the Aviva.
Coming hard on the heels of emerging from a group containing the prospective champions of England (Leicester) and France (Clermont) whom they beat at home and ruffled away, perhaps Ulster’s most relevant formguide was their quarter-final storming of Munster’s Thomond fortress.
Similarly, they are underdogs in a derby with a point to prove after years of being forced to admire their neighbours’ exploits. As Leinster also showed in the 2009 semi-final, it can be a potent cocktail.
That win over Munster brought to mind the Springboks’ mentality and template for many of their best days, primarily the 2007 World Cup win, and if Pienaar starts knocking over three-pointers from distance and Ulster obtain any sort of lead, they have the aggressive outside-in, rush defence and sufficiently athletic work-horses up front in Tom Court, Rory Best, the agile and mobile Afoa, Johann Muller and Tuohy to soak up the pressure and keep a team at arm’s length.