Key Clash Preview: Ulster v Leinster
Date: 19th May 2012
Referee: Nigel Owens
Venue: Twickenham Stadium
Sky Sports may have built up Saturday as the ‘Day of Destiny’, but for Ulster it genuinely does feel as though the men from Ravenhill are on the verge of something special. Last year’s quarter-final defeat to Northampton paved the way for this year’s success – with rampant wins over Leicester Tigers and a quarter-final victory over their great big brothers Munster under their belt.
Against Edinburgh in the semi-final they were nervous, rigid at times, but did enough to be far enough ahead thanks to the power of their pack and Ruan Pienaar’s boot. Their pack though could be the deciding factor on whether they succeed, given the way Leinster love to target front five forwards. But if their back row can start to control the breakdown, with Chris Henry passed fit, then victory is possible.
The champions on the brink of ultimate glory. When your fans are putting up banners around Dublin already celebrating a third Heineken Cup success in four years, the pressure is definitely on. Looking to become the first team since Brive in 1997 to go through a whole Heineken Cup tournament unbeaten, the fitness of Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll has left Joe Schimdt sweating all week, but the key to Leinster is Johnny Sexton.
When Leinster are in trouble in this competition, it is Sexton who appears to take charge. Against Northampton with the odds against them, his words at half-time rallied the troops before his brace of tries drew them level. Behind on the scoreboard at half-time in Bordeaux, it was Sexton who called the move that created Cian Healy’s try to put Leinster back in front. Ian Madigan is a fine prospect but so much rides on the Ireland fly-half. To win a third final at the age of 26 would be astonishing.
What to Expect:
Control versus width. For Ulster to win this their set-piece must get on top, putting huge emphasis on the performance on John Afoa at tighthead prop. The Euros have been splashed out on the former All Black for occasions such as these. Muller will have to put together a lineout capable of both stealing possession and securing their own ball. Where Ferris and Henry are so important is securing possession at the breakdown, terrorising Leinster in the same manner that they’ve put away so many packs so far this season.
If Leinster can get enough possession, then Brian O’Driscoll will always create and find space to exploit. Selecting Eoin Reddan at scrum-half provides Leinster with arguably less instinctive spark but a better supply. If Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney can be let loose, then we all know how devastating Leinster can be.
Head to Head: Chris Henry & Sean O’Brien
Two bright young prospects in the Irish back row, the rise of these two players over the last 12 months has been extraordinary. Henry might be yet to break onto the international scene, but for him to be described by the Sky Sports panel as Ulster’s most important player in their Heineken Cup campaign tells you everything. In the home match against Leicester and the game away in Clermont, Henry was ferocious.
O’Brien on the other hand impressed the world at last year’s Rugby World Cup, which came after he picked up the European Player of the Year award last season. Intensely physical and more than capable of achieving crucial turnovers.
Ones to Watch: Paddy Jackson & Brian O’Driscoll
When Stuart Barnes stated earlier in the week that he didn’t know if “Ruan Pienaar could carry a kid if that kid started to crumble”, Paddy Jackson’s selection seemed unlikely. But the 20 year old has won the race between himself and the out of form Ian Humphreys to start against Leinster. Sandwiched between Pienaar and Paddy Wallace, Jackson will be in safe hands but the level of occasion will be stifling. How he fares, no one really knows.
Meanwhile as his career heads for the sunset, O’Driscoll is ending on a flourish. After years of frustration at being unable to achieve success with Leinster, the last four years have seen it come in droves. Now, by inspiring Leinster to another title and making them the greatest European team of all time, O’Driscoll’s legend can grow ever further.
So difficult. As much as the heart wishes Ulster could emulate the spirit of ’99, this Leinster side have the experience. They have been part of the greatest comeback of all time. Nothing seems to faze them in this competition. It can surely only go one way. Leinster by 3
by Ben Coles