There were quite a few people who picked Ulster to knock over Munster in the quarter-finals, even though it was played down in Thomond Park, where Munster had been invincible at the quarter-final stage for over a decade … but who were the geniuses that had Edinburgh over Toulouse?
Home advantage or not, that was a serious shock. Edinburgh have made the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time in their history – in the history of any Scottish club, for that matter – and while they’ll take the pitch in Lansdowne Road as underdogs, they’ve taken down bigger game than Ulster. It’s the most significant match of the decade for both sides: how do they match up?
- Tom Court/Rory Best/Declan Fitzpatrick
- Allan Jacobsen/Ross Ford/Geoff Cross
A close-fought battle, but you’d have to say that in Afoa’s absence, Edinburgh – with their all-international front row – have the edge over a depleted Ulster. Ross Ford had a breathtaking game for Scotland against France in the Six Nations at Murrayfield, carrying the ball 14 times for 46 metres and skittling defenders out of his way like they were … eh, skittles. It was the performance that the big hooker – a hard-hitting backrower in his schoolboy career – has always looked physically capable of but rarely delivered. Turning 28, he’s just entering his prime as a front rower, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he goes against Rory Best. Best has been one of Ireland’s most consistent forwards over the last eighteen months, and can feel a little shortchanged not to be shortlisted for the IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year Award; The Mole has the feeling that if they had been voting after RWC11, he definitely would have been in there.
Were John Afoa available for selection, Ulster would edge this contest up front, but Declan Fitzpatrick is going to struggle against Allan Jacobsen. Jacobsen is a wily old conniver at loosehead, and Fitzpatrick is ring rusty from a long period out. There’s going to be lots of swearing, finger-pointing and vociferous accusations from Chunk every time the scrum goes down, and Fitzpatrick is going to have a long day at the office.
Tom Court has proved in recent weeks against Mike Ross and BJ Botha that he’s a very capable scrummager at loosehead; he has suffered in peoples’ estimation of his skills as a prop because it was posited that he can scrummage on both sides. He can’t, and while Ireland needs a prop who can scrummage on both sides, guess what? Tom Court ain’t it. It’s a bit ridiculous to suggest that a guy who only came to the sport in his twenties was ever going to be an international class scrummager at both loosehead and tighthead, but such has been the benighted situation in Irish propping in recent years that we’ll rush to believe any fable. Geoff Cross is a true Alastair, in that he’s a qualified doctor. While it’s easy to imagine Allan Jacobsen in a Rab C. Nesbitt-esque string vest, can of Tennants in hand and cigarette in mouth, banging on slum doors in Leith and collecting rent with menaces, Dr. Cross is altogether more representative of The Athens of the North.
- Dan Tuohy/Johann Muller
- Grant Gilchrist/Sean Cox
In terms of name recognition, there’s only one winner. On the other hand, Grant Gilchrist and Sean Cox went up against a pairing with an even bigger reputation in Toulouse’s Pato Albacete and Yoann Maestri and came off winners, so it’s not as clear-cut a contest as might be assumed at first glance.
Argentine Albacete is one of the best locks in the world, and the hot-blooded young French international Maestri is heading that way; personally speaking, the Mole would rate them as a more fearsome combination than Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller. However, as they say in boxing “styles make fights”, and it’s a saying that holds true to second row pairings. Tuohy and Muller are a complementary pairing, the Irishman more aggressive and thickset, a better ball-carrier and ruck-hitter, with the South African taller, a better handler and line-out operator, and a more level-headed and influential player on the pitch.
Gilchrist is a kid, a 21-year old who broke into the team thanks to the improvement he made training with the Canterbury Crusaders’ academy on a travelling scholarship to New Zealand last year, while the 27 year old Sean Cox spent the last six seasons with Sale Sharks.
All four second-rows wear headguards, which can lead to some confusion about who’s responsible for what. For Edinburgh, Cox generally wears a purple one and Gilchrist favours grey; Johann Muller’s is black and red with white trim, while Dan Tuohy must have a bit of a superstition about his, because he seems to sport the same washed-out red one all of Ulster’s Heineken Cup games.
- Stephen Ferris/Chris Henry/Pedrie Wannenburg
- David Denton/Ross Rennie/Netani Talei
This is going to be a cracking match-up. The Fijian No8 Netani Talei has been a huge player in Edinburgh’s success this season, and his confrontation with South African Pedrie Wannenburg – who has been nothing short of a workhorse for Ulster over the last two seasons – will be a cracking one-on-one. However, that’s only the starter when it comes to personal battles in the backrow.
Ross Rennie was absolutely outstanding for Scotland at openside during the Six Nations and will fancy his chances at stealing a march over Chris Henry when it comes to harrying the outhalf and being first to the breakdown, the traditional jobs of the No7. Henry had things all his own way against the inexperienced Tommy O’Donnell in the quarter-final in Thomond Park, but Rennie is in another class to the young Munster flanker and has been playing the position for a lot longer than the Ulsterman, a converted No8. This one could be crucial in deciding whether or not Henry should travel to NZ with Ireland this summer. If he can hold his own against Rennie, he’s an international class openside.
Less nuanced but more eye-catching will be the collision-fest between Stephen Ferris and Dave Denton on the blindside, two outstanding athletes and highly aggressive contact fiends. Denton had a blinding start to the Six Nations at No8 for Scotland, his ball-carrying lighting up a some fairly ho-hum performances from Andy Robinson’s men. Ferris was somewhat forgotten in the late-tournament acclaim for Dan Lydiate’s outstanding defensive performances and Tom Croft’s brilliant try against the French, but neither of those players can put it together like Ferris can. Lydiate is a pretty ordinary ball-carrier – far more in the Kev McLaughlin mould than the Sean O’Brien mould – and you only have to look at Nick Easter not just running over Croft but injuring him in the weekend’s cracking Harlequins vs Leicester game to realise that Croft has some serious issues as a one-on-one tackler.
- Ruan Pienaar/ IainHumphreys
- Mike Blair/Greig Laidlaw
The Mole has rarely seen an outhalf have such an ineffective game as Iain Humphreys did for Ulster against Munster in the quarter-final. True, he snagged a cracking opportunist’s drop-goal, but otherwise he was the next best thing to anonymous. Like a pregnant mother, Ruan Pienaar was eating for two … you know what I mean.
Humphreys’ piss-poor tackling gives you all the excuses in the world you need to drop him, but it’s his unpredictable yo-yoing form that is more of a concern when it comes to the semi-final. You know he’s not going to tackle and can plan around that … but is he going to show up and direct affairs? Ulster will have a hell of a lot more ball than they did against Munster, and if iHump absents himself from decision-making, this match could get away from the province. With Paul Marshall doubtful because of an elbow injury sustained against Connacht, McLaughlin will almost certainly include young Paddy Jackson in the match-day squad: the question is whether it will be at No10 or at No22.
The Blair/Laidlaw partnership is another imperfect halfback unit at Edinburgh. Greig Laidlaw is a smashing little footballer, but is very, very slight and has two fairly big flaws for an international outhalf: he struggles to tackle big ball-carriers running down his channel [he’s about 175cm tall and 79kgs, which is more or less a midget in professional rugby terms], and he has issues with kicking length from hand.
As Matt Williams said of his former protégé on The Breakdown yesterday, “Mikey [Blair] will win you five games and lose you four.” Some people like to slag off the IRB International Player of the Year Award because Blair was a nominee in 2008, as though his being shortlisted automatically discredits the assessors, but if you remember how well he played that season you’d have to take a different tack; maybe he wasn’t one of the six best players in the world, but he was still absolutely outstanding. The guy has been genuinely world class in his career, but since that great season four years ago his form has been all over the place … and continues to be all over the place.
- Paddy Wallace/ Darren Cave
- Matt Scott/Nick De Luca
Matthew Clive MacCrimmon Scott is another youngster who, like second row Grant Gilchrist, has benefitted from Michael Bradley’s term in charge. Scott came off the bench for Scotland against Ireland in the Six Nations for the luckless Lee Jones. Like Geoff Cross, he’s another true Alaistair – he’s working towards a law degree in his spare time. Nick de Luca is something of an enigma. He was supposed to be the best Scottish centre of his generation, but has really struggled to find anything that you could call consistent form. He’s playing reasonably well for Edinburgh this season, and he probably has enough in defense to shut down any Ulster attacks in that area.
Paddy Wallace is a real doubt for the semi-final due to the blow to the head he took against Leinster at the weekend. He’d be a real loss: Ulster simply play better when he’s on the pitch, and he is probably the form first centre in Ireland this season. He’s not a physically big man, but his bravery is beyond question when it comes to putting his body on the line to defend his channel. There’s no position like No12 to sort the men from the boys when it comes to consistently having to make tackles against runners at full pace, and Wallace was totally convincing in this role against Munster in the semi-final. If he’s out of contention, Brian McLaughlin will probably opt for Nevin Spence, who’s similarly hard-hitting but no where near as rounded or imaginative as Wallace. Darren Cave didn’t really get his hands on the ball much against Munster, and still needs that big game on a big stage to put him in the conversation alongside Keith Earls as a potential successor to Brian O’Driscoll’s No13 jersey.
- Andrew Trimble/Craig Gilroy
- Lee Jones/Tim Visser
The last time Lee Jones and Andrew Trimble collided, the 23-year old Scottish winger was left sprawled on the Lansdowne Road turf and had to be stretchered off with what looked like a serious injury. Thankfully he has made a complete recovery and is back up and raring to go. Tim Visser, ‘The Flying Dutchman’, is well known to Pro12 fans due to his freakish try-scoring record: in 56 games, the 24-year old has scored 36 tries. He has kept up that strike rate in the Heineken Cup this season, touching down 4 times in 7 games. Tall, quick, powerful and an accurate finisher, he’s an enormous threat – from a long way out, from a tight spot close-in or from a cross kick.
Andrew Trimble has had an excellent season for Ulster, match Visser’s record of 4 tries in his 7 HEC games this season. Trimble is now a senior player in the Ulster set-up, something which was easily discernible in the testy back-and-forth between himself and Leinster internationals Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll in the recent Pro12 clash in Ravenhill. A couple of years ago that wouldn’t have been his style, but he has become much more assertive on the pitch. Having just turned 21 a matter of weeks ago and in only his second professional season, Craig Gilroy has been an ever-present in the Ulster side this season, starting 25 games and bagging 6 tries. His impact has been somewhat eclipsed by Simon Zebo this season [who has dotted down a whopping 11 tries in 21 games! ] but Gilroy took the upper hand over his rival with his quarter-final wündertry. Difficult to see an edge either way here: Visser is a special talent, but if the game isn’t going your way, winger is the most peripheral position on the pitch. Andrew Trimble has far more big game experience and knows how to get himself involved in the middle of the park if the ball is not making its way wide.
- Stefan Terblanche
- Tom Brown
Tom Brown is another one of the Bradley Babes, the fullback having turned 22 only a few weeks ago. There’s an enormous gulf in experience between himself and opposite number, the 36-year old Stefan Terblanche. Terblanche has been doing this a long, long time, and made his debut for the Springboks in 1998, when Brown was just eight years old. He managed to score four tries that day [against Ireland and down Denis Hickie’s wing, incidentally] and while he doesn’t have the pace that he used to have, he’s one of the most experienced players still active in the game.
The make-up of Brian McLaughlin’s bench revolves around two injuries and a judgment call. If Chris Henry isn’t fit to start, you’d imagine that Willie Faloon will start in the No7 jersey, with Robbie Diack on the bench. If Henry does start, I think it’s likely that it’ll be Diack, rather than Faloon, who’ll miss out.
If Paul Marshall is available for selection, he’ll sit on the bench; if he’s not, Ruan Pienaar will stay at No9 for the entire game and be removed from the outhalf equation totally, with that falling between Iain Humphreys and Paddy Jackson. Paddy Wallace is the other big call: if he’s out, Nevin Spence will leave the bench and most likely come into the team at No12.
With the exception of hooker Nigel Brady, the Ulster back-ups are a relatively young and inexperienced bunch – they’re not incapable of impact, but the fact that McLaughlin saw fit not to bring any of them off the bench for even a minute in the quarter-final speaks of the step-down in quality between starters and subs.
On the Edinburgh bench, the 21-year old No8 Stuart McInally is another of Bradley’s discoveries, while red-headed flanker Roddy Grant, who’ll be known to Pro12 fans as one of the biggest cheats in the league, will likely make an appearance at some stage. It’s not that Grant is a dirty player, it’s just that he’s in the grand tradition of Scottish flankers who put their body in the way of fast ball as a matter of habit.
Outhalf Phil Godman has been more or less exiled from international rugby for two years, but is still a handy player to bring off the bench. He knocked over a last minute drop goal to beat Racing in the Stade Yves du Manoir in January, and that sort of temperament is always a plus in knock-out games. Fullback Jim Thompson is another of the McLaren/Lawson clan: grandson of the legendary Bill McLaren, nephew of former Scotland scrum-half Alan Lawson and cousin of Rory Lawson.
What Does It Mean For Edinburgh?
Who wouldn’t want to see a strong and consistently competitive Edinburgh team? The decline of Scottish rugby since the game went open has been little short of depressing, and any success that the professional sides can achieve would be a real fillip to the game in Scotland.
Edinburgh have recruited well in recent months, contracting highly rated South African prop W.P. Nel and former IRB International Young Player of the Year Ben Artiga, but it’s vital that Michael Bradley keeps together the young players he has blooded this season. Making a Heineken Cup semi-final has set a good high standard for those players to whom he has afforded a chance, and hopefully the likes of Ford, Denton, Rennie and Gilchrist can resist the temptation of the French offers that are likely to come their way and try and put together a solid foundation for the growth of professional Scottish rugby in the capital.
And For Ulster?
Ulster will go into this game as favorites, but have weak points in two of the most important positions on the pitch: tighthead and outhalf. Fitzpatrick is rusty and Iain Humphreys is flakey. Despite a full strength team and a favorable referee, Ulster couldn’t keep the ball for any length of time against a non-vintage Munster team in the quarter-final.