Ulster must turn match into a dockyard brawl
Ulster are simply not as good as Leinster and must employ innovative strategies to win
LEINSTER ARE the best team in Europe but if Ulster can rattle their cage an unlikely victory is possible.
Easy to say, very difficult to do.
Leinster have a wonderful system of play concocted by a brilliant coach. In the austerity of the forward-dominated Northern Hemisphere game, Joe Schmidt has re-established 15-man running rugby as a winning blueprint and not just an ideal.
They are a beautiful team to watch, allied with a steely BMT (big-match temperament). And yet the foundation of their success is defence. It’s an uncomplicated system fuelled by a prodigious work ethic. They totally commit to the physical contest. At club level, they are one of the most complete sides I have witnessed.
Not as good as the Auckland Blues in the late 1990s (Sean Fitzpatrick, Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke and Michael Jones) but up there with Toulouse 2003 and the ACT Brumbies and Canterbury Crusaders in the early 2000s.
They are certainly the best Ireland has produced in the professional era.
In moments of quiet reflection, Brian McLaughlin will have concluded, as I have, that Leinster do not have an obvious weakness. Defeat must be forced upon them.
Ulster’s journey to the final of the Heineken Cup has been glorious. Having defeated Leicester, Clermont and Munster, they are worthy finalists. McLaughlin, David Humphreys and the entire organisation deserve massive kudos. Rory Best and his players have not only been heroic but played an impressive brand of expansive rugby.
That is the picture. Now let’s apply brutal honesty.
As wonderful as the rise of Ulster has been, they are not as good as Leinster. That is not being disrespectful of Ulster as currently no club in Europe matches the champions.
However, Leinster are not unbeatable. Ulster’s challenge is to create an innovative strategic plan to slow Schmidt’s attacking waves and tear open their defensive system. Without such a tactic, even if Ulster play to their maximum, it will not be good enough.
I believe Leo Cullen will lift the trophy. Why? For the last two seasons every strategy Ulster has come up with to stop them have failed. Leinster have won the last six meetings.
Ulster tried to upset Leinster by employing some rough stuff. It didn’t work. They compacted their defensive line and rushed up hard, only for Leinster to go around the blitz and score tries on the fringe.
For Ulster’s sake, I hope the new thinking required for Twickenham this evening was done in Portugal last week.
As a boy, I watch my Balmain Tigers defeat a star-studded South Sydney in the 1969 Rugby League Grand Final. Souths were full of internationals and were red-hot favourites. My beloved Tigers were a team of nobodies but they won a historic and famous battle using three simple strategies.
Firstly, they tackled everything that moved. Secondly, their discipline and ruthlessness was Special Forces standard, resulting in them giving away minimal penalties. Lastly, with masterful insight, their almost forgotten coach, Leo Noseworthy, devised a simple strategy to get under the skins of South’s players and coaches. Balmain faked injuries. Every time Souths began building pressure, a Tiger hit the deck, awaiting the magical qualities of a watery sponge. The Souths players and their legendary coach, Clive Churchill, were seething. Years later, Noseworthy’s plan was wonderfully described as the “lay down and take it” tactic.
McLaughlin needs to conceive a Noseworthian tactic to upset Leinster. It is the only way.
The successful Ospreys game plan in the 2010 Magners League Grand Final contained such a masterstroke. The Welsh ran decoys to obstruct the Leinster defenders. After the ball was passed behind a decoy, he would simply grab hold of a Leinster player. The Ospreys ran in three tries through holes created by this tactic. As the television match officials cannot review obstructions in the field of play (until next season’s trial period), it was a simple yet hugely effective ploy. Oh, and the on-field officials missed it.
Even with a Noseworthian tactic, if Ulster are to have any chance they must transform today’s spectacle into a dockyard brawl. The Marquess of Queensberry rules must be replaced by guerrilla warfare.
In the end, winning is all that matters.
Ulster must attack Leinster possession at its source. Screw every Leinster scrum, disrupt every lineout. Give the blue team fractured, tarnished possession.
Every tackle must be a battleground. Chris Henry can secure a Test jersey next month in New Zealand with another typically disruptive openside display. However, Ulster must not leave it to Henry alone. Every Ulster player must have the Richie McCaw mentality; break every law and get away with it.
Ulster will get one or two try-scoring chances and they must be ruthless.
Ruan Pienaar must be flawless from the tee.
On top of an 80-minute lung-busting, heart-snapping effort, Ulster must also pray that Leinster simply have a bad day.
If you are thinking it is unlikely for Ulster to get all these stars aligned, you are right. The game is there for Leinster to lose. The pressure sits firmly on the champions’ shoulders.
Both clubs are close to my heart and I do not wish the pain of defeat on either. If McLaughlin can conjure up a series of inspirational tactics to upset Leinster, Ulster will do more than lift the trophy, they will have a victory to last throughout the ages. If not, Leinster will deservedly claim their third title in four seasons.
Whichever club wins, the joy of victory, like that of my boyhood Balmain Tigers, will last a lifetime.