Heaslip’s consistency will trump Williams’ sporadic brilliance
Jared Payne: a definite Ireland number 13 in waiting.
When Saracens humbled Ulster in their Heineken Cup quarter-final few Ulster men were fit for the fray. But Nick Williams looked particularly angry in his sporadic entries, carrying the fight to Sarries. Since his arrival in Ireland he has remained a conundrum.
One minute explosive, the next lazy and in the red jersey of Munster he happily oscillated between both. Against Saracens he was mean but his impact needs to arrive with far more regularity in the really big games, such as at the RDS tomorrow.
The Pro 12 final is the culmination of months of rugby: but where Ulster may think it more of the same , Leinster will no doubt treat this as a European final.
This is very dangerous for Ulster as in totally dominating the Pro 12 with a points differential of 229 points, they are just 30 ahead of Leinster in points difference and 12 ahead of Glasgow, and miles ahead of anyone else; the point?
The point is either Leinster or Glasgow can beat Ulster, the rest can’t. In many ways Ulster’s double wins over Leinster are now irrelevant but Saracens eight weeks ago is not so.
They couldn’t land a punch and worryingly, looked incapable of thinking and forcing their way back.
This brings me back to Williams, who against Scarlets in the Pro12 semi-final, was omnipresent in attack and destructive in defence, commanding the midfield in either direction and very impressive in stopping outhalf Owen Williams dead at will. But like Stade Français last Saturday, Scarlets are very poor and are 199 points in differential behind Ulster on the table.
Williams looks bigger now than when in Munster but lighter and definitely fitter, hence his energy levels are keeping up with his unquestionable skills, with opposition defences feeling the pain.
The best part remains his symbiotic link with scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar.
Breaking right off Ulster scrums sucks in defenders sweating on his size, which gives Pienaar time and a huge field of vision before picking clean grass to punt the ball into; what an advantage it must be, not to mention the time afforded Paddy Jackson when he eventually gets the ball.
Jackson is not a gainline player, where he has become more marginalised by Mark Anscombe’s tactics as Pienaar manages everything. Large swathes of time elapse between Jackson touches. Of course if this works then there’s no need to fix it but this is the kernel of Ulster’s challenge: Pro 12 rugby is not Europe or Six Nations. Glasgow could put 100 metres on Leinster with their offloading and power running dictated by their nine and 10.
Jackson exited the Scarlets game after 55 minutes, and had almost no role in the 25 points amassed by that point. Ulster need their 10 on the gainline to dictate the pace, flow of ball and their power runners in play.
By the way, match referee John Lacey must keep an eye on a trademark Williams move from a dead ruck; while standing in the ruck, he will pick and explode out the far side. He is brilliantly getting away with it every match; it is illegal to pick the ball while in the ruck and burst out.
A word to supersub loose head prop Callum Black who, when last utilised in the RDS, was superb in protecting Ulster in those closing minutes as Leinster mounted massive scrum pressure to ultimately fall short.
Against Scarlets when Tom Court went off with a blood injury he was the only change to that scrum right on half-time, and Ulster smashed Scarlets to put another Pienaar penalty on the board; a fine effort. The Ulster scrum continues to be hugely important to their backline attack; Craig Gilroy’s try against Munster last year came off a right field scrum, with the blindside winger running open.
Court’s try against Scarlets was once again off a right-hand scrum, with Pienaar hitting Andrew Trimble coming from blindside in their classic right-hand field scrum . This time Trimble switched with Darren Cave on a powerful line back into heavy traffic but it was Court who got the touchdown; 25-3.
Much further out than Court and Black is Jared Payne at fullback, who is a n Ir eland 13 in waiting. He’s not a million miles from All Black Conrad Smith in shape and style and one to watch tomorrow as he glides through the tiniest of gaps.
Ulster can win with power clear-outs and counter-rucks, with their 10 on the gainline. Where the initial shoulder doesn’t clear out then a violent peeling of the Leinster leg, rotating the player out of the breakdown, will.
It won’t be good enough for Rory Best to lead the breakdown; his captain Johann Muller, great around the park, must impose himself physically. Although exhausting, this will affect Leinster. In possession, Ulster must get power drives from more than Williams (who will tire) and a back line running from depth. Ulster must score, where Glasgow didn’t.
Johnny Sexton can chip away with variety and each time Jamie Heaslip is hungry for the bounce. Heaslip and Williams couldn’t be more different; Heaslip doesn’t have Williams’ bulk and has, by consequence, a vastly different style.
What a battle awaits us, where I fancy Heaslip to dominate tomorrow.
Leinster can play wide, but also route one through Devin Toner and their lineout maul. Therein lies the great decision-making and execution differential separating the sides. The difference between the sides is represented at number eight; Williams a massive sporadic impact and Heaslip consummately consistent at cup final level, the business end.