Ulster vs Leinster – Heineken Cup Preview
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.
So where do the physical fault lines lie then, other than in Stephen Ferris’ non-existent knee? Ulster will certainly try to target Leinster at the set-piece, but they assuredly won’t be banking on this, particularly as Leinster are reportedly putting in a lot of time on this at training. The breakdown could therefore well be more important, and almost certainly more interesting, with both sides likely to adopt similar approaches in defence. What each team lacks for in jackals it makes up for in masters of the dark arts of slow ball. If the ref doesn’t grip the two teams, the spectacle may well up a victim of Irish excellence in the choke tackle – although if he judges one team to be doing it legally and the other not, he’s probably decided the match. Consistency will be very important here. If Ulster can get quick ball, they will fancy a cut. The normal Ulster tactic is for Andrew Trimble or Paddy Wallace to crash it up relatively narrow and secure quick ball, but you wonder whether Ulster won’t fancy going a bit wider this match. If Ulster can tie down O’Driscoll in the breakdown from first phase, then attacking Leinster’s backline looks far more inviting, particularly if they can get Stephen Ferris arriving onto the ball for the second. Leinster, by contrast, might well be tempted to go narrower than usual. The two Paddy’s – Jackson and Wallace – are excellent tacklers for small men, but they are rather small, and people like Sean O’Brien rather large. Even if they never manage a clean break there, continuous attacking of that channel may lead to Ulster becoming bunched in and vulnerable to the wide sortie. Of course, the danger is that in operating that close to Ulster’s pack, the quick ball necessary may never materialise. Leinster have the more to gain out of the game opening up due to their superior support lines and hands. It will be interesting to see which tactic appeals more, and when Jonathon Sexton will adopt each option. Whatever he picks, I’m expecting a fair few wide passes from both fly-halves, as neither back-three looks particularly inviting to kick to. There will be kicking of course, but it’s timing and execution will need to be spot on. Leinster might toy with repeating Edinburgh’s successful tactic of launching fairly short bombs for Rob Kearney to get on to as a back-up tactic, although both sides would rather wait to kick behind a winger rushing up. Here Ulster hold a minor advantage in that Paddy Wallace is a very accomplished tactical kicker and distributor. The ball in his hands will cause more thinking for opposition wingers than it will in Gordon D’Arcy’s. I feel I should mention the sub’s bench here. Ulster’s isn’t bad, containing a few potential game-changers and some steady performers, but it is nothing like the hidden armoury of internationals Leinster have waiting. To talk about this game’s intensity would be an understatement. Injuries and fatigue will happen. Barring bad luck, the process of attrition is likely to favour Leinster, simply because of their calibre of replacement. That must play a part in Schmidt’s thinking, particularly if he is tempted to play it loose and quick. Will Ulster be able to withstand eighty minutes of such treatment? Ulster need to protect themselves against such an eventuality by taking good care of the pill. Which brings us back to the breakdown again. Schmidt’s selection of McLaughlin over Shane Jennings makes sense, both in terms of safeguarding Leinster’s lineout and providing a physical presence. But it does keep Leinster’s dedicated ruckhog out of the opening exchanges.
Schmidt will probably not end up regretting that. He simply has too much firepower to level at Ulster and mistakes will be savagely punished. Leinster are also capable of operating at a level where they will simply blow Ulster away, unless Ulster find a new defensive level. Between these two facts, Leinster are deserved favourites. But Ulster are not devoid of hope. This match will be won up-front, where Ulster should be able to match Leinster blow for blow. Every minute that Ulster sucks Leinster into a battle there, every minute that Leinster can’t probe for gaps out wide, is a minute that improves Ulster’s chances. Ulster must choke Leinster at source as much as possible. Not an easy task, not at all, but doable. So too is the task of breaking down Leinster’s defence and generating a few scores of their own. McLaughlin must find a plan, his players a way, for no matter how firm the chokehold, Leinster will almost definitely wriggle away from it at some point. Defence will not be enough and it must be allied to ruthless finishing and ruthless ball protection. Do so, and Ulster can finish a shock of a season with the biggest shock of all. Anything else though, and Leinster will surely lift their second Heineken Cup in as many years, and in doing so enter the pantheon of greats.
The Clash to Watch – John Afoa vs. Cian Healy. Given the extreme familiarity between Tom Court and Mike Ross, it seems likely that any decisive swing in the in the scrum will come on the opposite side. Given the burden both Healy and Afoa bear in the loose, particularly in defence, if one man starts to take heavy physical punishment from the other then it could well prove a decisive advantage. Afoa would seem the favourite of the two to accomplish such a feat, but Healy is not a man lightly written off.