The first ever all-Irish Heineken Cup final kicks off at 5pm, Saturday 19 May in front of a capacity 81,000 Twickenham crowd: Leinster v Ulster.
Ulster? Well, yes, Ulster. The absence of Munster at the most significant game ever between two Irish provinces has left some journalists struggling for content, unaccustomed as they are writing about Ulster. However judging by Munster’s humiliating exit from the Pro12 League semi finals, the press will needs to get used to the new world order in Irish rugby.
Ulster’s rise to the Heineken Cup final from the lower reaches of the then Magners League and perennial failure to qualify for the Heineken Cup knock-out games has indeed been underreported. Being a distant third behind Irish top dogs Leinster and Munster clearly rankled with the Ulster blazers, Ulster Director of Rugby, David Humphreys and senior players within the Ulster squad.
The first step was recruitment and Humphreys started clocking up the frequent flier miles to target the overseas players he wanted. Humphreys has reportedly spent significantly more time vetting players than is the norm in professional rugby and this appears to have paid off with Ulster’s overseas contingent all fitting in to the team culture, unlike some recent flops at the other provinces.
Despite plaudits for his recruitment, Humphreys has got flak in the media for his ruthless approach towards Ulster coach, Brian McLaughlin and this provides a fascinating sub-plot to the final. McLaughlin will be replaced next season by relatively unknown New Zealander, Mark Anscombe who was announced as the person who will “take Ulster to the next level”.
It seems difficult to take a team to the next level when you have reached a Heineken Cup final… but wind the clock back to last October and there were some pretty dire performances from an Ulster team who have a good first XV, but when that isn’t on the field, the rest of the squad doesn’t have the same experience or quality.
Getting to the next level and competing consistently at the top level will require a higher level of performance from the entire squad and that will be Anscombe’s challenge.
After years of playing second fiddle to Munster, Leinster won their first Heineken Cup in 2009. Under coach Joe Schmidt, they have become even better, winning the trophy last year and are unquestionably the best team in Europe. Schmidt’s relentless focus on basic skills of rugby such as accurate passing and delivering fast ball from the breakdown, has created a Leinster “machine” that few teams have been able to match. This doesn’t just apply to the first team, but Leinster’s second team would challenge Munster to be the third best team in Ireland.
Leinster’s route to the final started with a last minute draw away against middle ranked French team Montpelier however this can be put down to post Rugby World Cup rustiness, as Leinster topped the group without much too difficulty, winning all remaining games against a poor Bath side, and a gutsy but limited Glasgow as well as the return fixture against Montpelier.
In contrast, Ulster’s group contained Leicester and Clermont who have finished second in their domestic leagues but the Italian side Aironi were there to make up the numbers. Ulster sneaked a narrow win in the opening fixture against Clermont in a rain-sodden Ravenhill, the type of weather French teams never seem to like. Away against Leicester, Ulster were competitive, but bereft of ideas as to how to break down the Tigers defence and ultimately lost without gaining a bonus point.
Fans grumbled, expecting another disappointing season. As expected, Ulster picked up maximum points against Aironi setting up the home game against Leicester. Ulster demolished the Tigers 41-7 in their best display of the season. Other results went Ulster’s way in the last round of games so Ulster knew they had qualified before their final game against Clermont, where they came within a score of beating the French team.
That set-up quarter final games with Ulster away to Munster at Thomond Park. Leinster were at home to a poor Cardiff team who Leinster put away with some ease. In the all Irish quarter final, Ulster shocked Munster racing away to a 0-19 lead, then hung on with gritty defence to win the game 16-22. Defeating Munster in their backyard was the result announcing that Ulster were up with the big boys now. With hindsight, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.
The Munster “liginds” are all past their best and the younger players either too inexperienced or not good enough. In contrast Ulster had a core of experienced players in their mid- to late 20s – Best, Ferris, Trimble, Henry and others – all reaching their prime and winning their individual battles against their Munster counterparts.
In the semi-finals, Ulster had the easier tie, against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in front of over 40,000 Ulster fans while Leinster played Clermont in Bordeaux. The mantle of favourites didn’t sit well with Ulster and they struggled against a lively Edinburgh side but came through in the end by pressurising Edinburgh into mistakes rather than playing much rugby themselves.
Leinster again impressed with a gritty win against Clermont, however one their could have lost had Wesley Fofana managed to hold on to the ball when diving for the line in the final minutes.
On paper, it should be a relatively easy win in the final for Leinster. They are unbeaten in European competition since December 2010 and have shown consistency in performance that Ulster have only occasionally reached.
Ulster’s tactics in the previous knockout games – let the opposition have the ball then defend – simply won’t work against Leinster who have a far more potent attack than either Munster or Edinburgh. If Leinster lose, it will be because of pyschology rather than inferior players – twice champions, maybe the hunger won’t be quite there compared to some of the Ulster players.
For Ulster to stand a chance, they need the team’s talisman, Stephen Ferris to stay uninjured and do his human wrecking ball act in both attack and defence, they need Ruan Pienaar to cooly pull the strings and kick the goals, and they need some moment of inspirations to unlock the Leinster defence.
Craig Gilroy on the wing can give away scores through mistakes, but can also win games, as he proved with his wonder try against Munster.
The high performance machine of Leinster versus the up and coming, but still limited battlers of Ulster. Leinster would probably win 9 times out of 10 but we all watch sport for the unexpected.