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.
And that’s not even mentioning the defensive wrecking ball that is Stephen Ferris, the uber physical Pedrie Wannenburg nor the much improved Henry, spoiler supreme at the breakdown – where McLaughlin yesterday again targeted the huge role of referee Nigel Owens.
They will also look to go after the Leinster set pieces. Indeed, the packs look quite evenly matched, and you could easily make a case for including half a dozen or more of this Ulster team in a composite XV. But Brad Thorn’s short-term hiring looks tailor-made for this Cup campaign, and with the conditions likely to be dry and still on a wide, firm pitch to their liking, if Leinster achieve any kind of parity up front and provide the orchestrator supreme, Jonathan Sexton, with quick ball, they undoubtedly have the wider attacking repertoire. And, in Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Brian O’Driscoll, the game-breakers for the big occasion.
Alternatively, of course, it could be that Leinster will catch a rustier Ulster cold early on. There is the memory of Leinster’s first-half performance in the final against Northampton last season.
Their own high standards and ferocious ambition adds to the weight on them again today. Yet they ought surely have learned from that, and won’t force things so much this time.
The familiarity of a derby game adds to the Cup final effect, and makes a repeat of the six-try, 55-point final of 12 months ago so freakish. So often the more pragmatic team beats the more expansive favourites in knock-out rugby yet it’s hard to overlook how Leinster have lost only once in their last 28 games (and thrice in their last 29 European games) and how that utter belief in each other manifested itself in the defensive end game against Clermont.
They haven’t had an 80-minute performance since then, but they’re due one; and to that end they can also defend, and be pragmatic, and they also have the better bench.
Most of all, perhaps more than any competition with a knock-out finale, over the years it is remarkable how the best team in the Heineken Cup almost always wins the trophy ultimately. And Leinster are the best team.
Routes to final – Leinster: 16-16 v Montpellier (a); 38-13 v Glasgow (h); 18-13 v Bath (a); 52-27 v Bath (h); 23-16 v Glasgow (a); 25-3 v Montpellier (h); q-f, 34-3 v Cardiff Blues (h); s-f, 19-15 v Clermont (a).
Ulster: 16-11 v Clermont (h); 9-20 v Leicester (a); 31-10 v Aironi (h); 46-20 v Aironi (a); 41-7 v Leicester (h); 15-19 v Clermont (a); q-f, 22-16 v Munster (a); s-f, 22-19 v Edinburgh (h).
Leading try scorers – Leinster: Rob Kearney 6. Ulster: Andrew Trimble 4.
Leading points scorers – Leinster: Jonathan Sexton 88. Ulster: Ruan Pienaar 71.
Betting (Paddy Power): 4/11 Leinster, 2/1 Draw, 21/10 Ulster. Handicap odds: (Ulster +7pts) 10/11 Leinster, 20/1 draw, 10/11 Ulster.
Forecast: Leinster. Just.