BY SOCIAL PUNDIT: Well, this is it. This afternoon Twickenham will host an Irish invasion, as the Emerald Isle’s top two provinces (hi Munster fans) go head to head in the tournament’s first ever all-Irish final, although the next doesn’t seem too far away by now. This is a high-water mark of Irish rugby, but it is being achieved by two teams that still appear to be below their peak, and you get the feeling it could get even higher.
In the blue corner are Leinster, two times European rugby champions, seeking to become the only team to win back-to-back Heineken Cups since Leicester Tigers and also complete a European-domestic double, in what would be their third victory in four years, surely nailing on their status as one of the greatest Heineken Cup teams ever.
And in the white corner are Ulster, seeking to win for the first time this millennium and recent winners of sweet fanny adams. Uhm…
The first question any preview has to answer is ‘Can Ulster win this and is there any way Leinster can be stopped’, so great is the disparity in recent results between the two teams. Well, maybe my bias is misleading me, but the men from Ravenhill aren’t as far away as it may appear. It’s some challenge for only fifteen men to take on but it can be done and Ulster are an increasingly formidable team in their own right, although there’s no doubt that if both sides play to their best, Leinster simply have more about them.
Leinster have more about them than most mind. Joe Schmidt walked in on Cheika’s half-completed project and has turned them into probably the most complete side in Europe. People often remark most on their handling ability and lines, but their defence is incredible, their kicking game very strong, their set-pieces solid. When you look at the ferocity with which their backs hit tackles and the ease with which their forwards offload, you see a team who have blurred the distinction between forward and back as much as any other. They are masters of the fifteen man game and all the options it offers. They are masters of defence too, and the counter-rucking that the backs do is a large part of what makes them so difficult to score against. There’s been a list of injury worries since their slightly cagey victory over Glasgow in the ProDirect 12 semi-final, but thanks to the recuperative powers of cup finals Leinster will walk out at virtually full strength. Given Leinster’s strength in depth though, a few injuries was far from the end of the world for them. It also gives them, assuming all is well, a formidable bench containing six internationals.
Against this, Ulster have an up-hill struggle, if not up-mountain. But after the colossal defensive display they found to unseat Munster at Thomond Park, a performance that was more remarkable for the desire and mental resilience on show than any level of athletic and technical prowess, it’s not impossible. While its true the results card makes for bad reading, it won’t be registering much in Ulster minds, as it’s very rare for the provinces to meet 1st XV to 1st XV. Even last year’s playoff semi-final defeat saw Ulster much reduced with injury, starting with Stephen Ferris. Few men make as much difference to their side as Ferris and his mutant-esque levels of physicality and after very sparing use in recent weeks, he should be fit and raring to go. He’ll be the totem of an all-international pack that has asserted themselves recently as the equal of any in Europe with an abrupt abrasiveness. The set-piece is nigh flawless, it is rammed full with heavyweight carriers, and with Chris Henry back, it offers a fair bit of ruck disruption too. In the backs, Ruan Pienaar carries as much importance as Ferris up front, where so far he has turned in nerveless displays as general and goal-kicker in this tournament. He will probably first and foremost look to dictate territory before unleashing his back-line, but that does not mean the Ulster back-line should be overlooked. It has shown a few killer touches off its own this season, particularly when it links up with its mobile pack in a manner fairly reminiscent of their southern cousins. It may not have quite the same cachet as Leinster’s levy of Lions, but it is filled with talented players who yearn to show that they can be put in the same bracket.
Yearning is an appropriate word for Ulster’s emotional state right now, if anything a little mild. Years of struggle, of living as close to Connacht as to Munster and Leinster, has put an indelible mark on a senior core of players who have lived and breathed for a jersey that is a childhood ambition. It is a subject that has dominated interviews, an emotion that seemed to be made solid flesh at Thomond Park. In a game that will be decided as much by the mind as the body, properly channelled, this bellicose hunger will be a considerable weapon. In captain Johannes Muller, the perennial understudy to Victor Matfield who Andy Goode described as the best leader he’d seen other than Johnson, Ulster have one of the best possible men to do the channelling. Yet opposite him in the lineout will be a man nearly as well-respected for his leadership skills, Leo Cullen. Next to him is Brad Thorn, implacably bent on another trophy. And buzzing around in the backline like a pitbull on steroids will be Brian O’Driscoll. They will keep the desire levels ramped as high as possible. A surfeit of final experience would seem to point to Leinster, but Ulster aren’t short of players who’ve been in a big game or two. No advantage can really be seen at this point in the mental states of the players.