Ulster threw in the towel on the Pro12 in order to concentrate on European competition, while Leinster are still going bull-headed for the league and cup double that eluded them last year.
There’s only ever one team in a league who think that play-offs are a bad idea: the team that finishes first. The play-off system is there to keep interest in the league alive for the entire duration of the season and to act as a counterweight against player-deprivation causes like injury, illness and international competition that occur over the course of the nine competition months. There’s an interesting roundtable in a recent edition of the Telegraph which focuses on that aspect, with some typically reflective and soft-spoken comments from one Richard Cockerill.
Not every league competition can end with Manchester City banging in two injury time goals to come back from the dead, and in the Pro12 the threat of relegation … well, there is none. Leinster would have been confirmed as champions about three weeks ago, and the league would have dribbled on for a few meaningless fixtures before ending with a whimper. What sort of sponsor wants that kind of attention?
As it is, the league-toppers were forced to go through a bruising semi-final man-up-athon [to quote Joe Schmidt’s eminently repeatable and pretty accurate appraisal of the Top14] against Glasgow on Saturday of last week and shipped a number of injuries, while their Heineken Cup final opponents Ulster were sunning themselves and working on their beach weights over in Portugal.
Rob Kearney [back], Luke Fitzgerald [shoulder/neck surgery], Brian O’Driscoll [knee surgery], Eoin O’Malley [knee surgery] and Gordon D’Arcy [face wound] have incurred a variety of injuries and ailments over the last couple of weeks; Fitzgerald’s and O’Malley’s have already been confirmed as season-ending, and while Kearney, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy are available for selection, who knows if they’re at 100%?
Leinster have spread the gametime around very evenly within their squad, but they have also been far more competitive in the league than Ulster. The northern province lost a whopping 10 of 22 matches – which compares very poorly with Leinster’s 3 losses from 23 [including their recent semi-final] – and sent a number of very young teams to the RDS and Thomond Park in a bid to ease the workload on their front-liners, a canny bit of resource-management from outgoing head coach Brian McLaughlin. The European champions will thus go into this game a little more shop-worn than their opponents.
Cup rugby can be attritional and nervy, but both sides are buoyed with experienced competitors who should be able to settle into the game quickly. Leinster have been to two finals in the last three years, winning them both, and while Ulster can’t boast that sort of recent history in this particular competition, they’re stocked with players who have competed at the highest level. John Afoa, Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar all have World Cup winner’s medals, while Pedrie Wannenburg has Currie Cup and Super Rugby medals by the barrowload.
Contrary to what many people seem to think, The Mole has this one as a pick ‘em. Leinster’s preparations for the game have been badly disrupted by injuries to key players, while Ulster have been in the shade, licking 99s and sipping [virgin] piña coladas.
Full Fathom Front Five
Just like you can overswing a golfclub, you can over-reach with an argument. Tom Court isn’t as bad a tighthead as he looked against England, but he’s not a particularly special loosehead either. The Mole stands behind the argument [just like Maurice Pratt would a price] that Leinster have two looseheads who are better than him – Cian Healy and Heinke van der Merwe. If you were asking me who I’d pick at loosehead between Court and van der Merwe, I’d go with van der Merwe ten times out of ten; in fact, in The Mole’s book, the only real competition to van der Merwe as the best loosehead in Irish rugby is Cian Healy.
At hooker, we have ourselves a battle royale. Rory Best is one tough hombre, about as tough as they come. Managing to appear in the World Cup quarter-final after sustaining a serious shoulder injury the previous week was enough to confirm him as a regular hard-ass; being Ireland’s best player on the day earns him his own entry in the book of hard-nosed Ulstermen, somewhere between Willie “Call That A Haka?” Anderson and Blair “Paddy” Mayne [look him up]. Besty brings more to the table than toughness, though all the best elements of his game are linked to just how hard he is – he’s tough to shift at the breakdown and he’s a work-hungry tackler.
His opposite number Richardt Strauss is slighter in stature, but arguably no less gritty. Best has a big size advantage but Strauss, the ex-openside, is quicker about the pitch, and – as we saw against Clermont – no slack footballer. John Afoa has been a phenomenal pick-up for Ulster, a definite step-up from Brendan James Botha. He does everything you could ask of a tighthead prop: scrummages low, carries the ball, makes a lot of tackles … the lad simply does everything. Mike Ross is slightly more prosaic, but his game has improved with every season he has spent in Leinster. He’s an intelligent man, a hard worker and a strong scrummager, and a step above any Irish-qualified tighthead at the moment.
Where Leinster will look to use their front-row bench of Cronin, van der Merwe and White, Ulster will look to avoid using theirs. They won’t want Best or Afoa to leave the pitch. In fact, they won’t want any of their pack to leave the park before eighty minutes.
Chris Henry is having a good season, and certainly deserved better than Declan Kidney parachuting Peter O’Mahony in ahead of him as an openside during the Six Nations. O’Mahony is no sort of openside, and while full of effort, he didn’t have a particularly good game in his start against the Jocks – there’s a loud voice in the media that acclaims everything he does, but if you can’t tackle at all on your left shoulder, you’re going to struggle as an openside. Them’s the breaks. If you’re good enough for Munster, you’re good enough for Ireland – at least in Kidney’s book.
Nothing to see in that opener but tangents [tangents everywhere!] I’m afraid, although the point stands that Henry has been ignored this season in a critical position by a coach who hasn’t got the results.
However, he’s not David Pocock, and he certainly hasn’t come out of nowhere. He’s a diligent, hard-nosed and intelligent player who was first pushed into the openside jersey to accommodate a better ball-carrier at No8, and has now determined that he’s going to make it his primary position. That’s it. He does the same things as an openside that Sean O’Brien [another convert to the No7 jersey] does, but if O’Brien doesn’t break four tackles and make two twenty-metre line-breaks every game he gets accused of having a bad outing. Henry doesn’t.
Leinster’s selection of O’Brien as starting No7 means that Stephen Ferris will go up against the über-solid Kev ‘Locky’ McLaughlin in the battle of the No6s. McLaughlin will look to rope-a-dope the Maghaberry Monster rather than go to war with him, depriving Irish rugby fans of a great slugfest between the Tullow Tank and Big Fez, but the Gonzaga alumnus adds a vital fourth option to the Leinster lineout and is a willing toiler when it comes to putting in the hits.
The Mole does not rate Willie Faloon at this level and thinks that Brian McLaughlin would have been better off with Robbie Diack on the bench, who looked far more threatening in the recent game up in Ravenhill. Then again, maybe Chris Henry isn’t 100%, and Faloon might be in real danger of coming on. Precious little has emerged from Ravenhill about what Chris Henry’s injury actually was, so nobody knows just how serious things looked. Diack provides no cover whatsoever for the openside role; nor do Ferris or Wannenburg, so if Falloon gets the spot on the bench after a couple of ordinary performances against Edinburgh in the semi and Leinster in the league, it might mean that Henry is still a worry. In contrast, Leinster definitely will use their bench.
At No8, Jamie Heaslip goes up against Pedrie Wannenburg, a guy who has been a tireless servant for his adopted province. This is going to be an interesting contest: just as there’s a voice in the media who thinks O’Mahony can do no wrong, there are a number who think that Heaslip can do no right at the moment. Good performances are quickly forgotten, poor ones gnawed over for days. Wannenburg is an old-fashioned No8, a guy who carries the ball into contact and tries to smash his way over the gainline. As we said in yesterday’s article, he’s worth his weight in gold up in Ravenhill. Heaslip has been more effective in the lineout and at winning turnovers or breakdown penalties than at any time of his career, but he had an ordinary World Cup and his media profile is sort of obnoxious. This final will be a good chance to get the rugby fans of Ireland back on his side … or conversely, it could be Wannenburg’s swansong.
Both teams number their key players and goalkickers – always important in a final – in their halfback units. Jonny Sexton turned in an incredible second half performance in last year’s final to turn around an enormous halftime deficit and see his team out assured winners at the final whistle. In the words of Hulk Hogan, “he’s been to the top of the mountain”.
A Heineken Cup final is no time to talk about ‘potential’ and ‘bright future’ – Paddy Jackson has to perform at a far higher level than he has ever performed. Greig Laidlaw played him off the park in the semi-final, and on current form, Sexton is twice the player Laidlaw is – he offers twice as big a running threat, he’s twice as good a defender, and if he can’t quite kick twice the distance that Laidlaw can, he’s not far off it. Jackson’s not that big a fellow [Sexton is 10cm taller and 5kg heavier] and while he’s a fine defender, you can bet your life that Leinster will target him all game long. Why? Because the other option that Ulster had at outhalf was Iain Humphreys, who Leinster would also have looked to target as well. Whatever time they’ve had on the training pitch together, they’ve been training to attack the No10 channel.
Ruan Pienaar is Ulster’s vital player: general, playmaker, goal-kicker. Leinster will look to suck him into defending when they’re in possession, and to put him under pressure – much as they pressured Morgan Parra against Clermont – when Ulster have the ball. Pienaar is a calmer, more experienced and less combustible version of Parra, but he doesn’t have Brock James to share the load. The Mole wrote before that when teams take Ireland seriously enough to actually try and stop them playing, those teams usually win. Leinster will try and stop Ulster playing, and Ulster play a huge amount through Pienaar. Disrupting Pienaar is the key to disrupting Ulster, but such is the calm of the man that nobody has been able to do it yet.
Sexton may be the directing force, but Leinster’s scrum-half Eoin Reddan is no naïf: he’s got two Heineken Cup winner’s medal already, along with forty Irish caps. In a player-on-player comparison between himself and Pienaar, he comes up short, but there are few scrum-halves in world rugby who don’t. However, he and Sexton form a sharp combination, despite their poor kicking during last Saturday’s outing against Glasgow. They won’t be able to afford that sort of cheap territory and possession tomorrow.
Darren Cave lacks the flashing pace of a Keith Earls or Ben Foden in the No13 channel, and pace is what can expose Brian O’Driscoll at this stage of his career [and about a week after knee surgery]. Both O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy shipped injuries within the last ten days, but neither Cave nor Paddy Wallace have the physical bulk to inflict damage as a Roberts/Davies or SBW/Kahui centre partnership might do.
However, both Ulster centers are clever, creative players and good handlers, and one gets the feeling that the midfield battle will be more of a chessmatch than we have gotten used to seeing this season. Wallace in particular is having an Indian summer, and is a vital shepherd to young Jackson inside him, while Gordon D’Arcy has rebounded energetically from his poor Six Nations form.
Fergus McFadden makes it into the starting line-up as a winger, with Isa Nacewa being redirected to the other wing to face off against Andrew Trimble. McFadden has been used as a winger by both Schmidt at Leinster and Kidney at Ireland, and he has genuine winger’s pace – anybody who saw him ‘running for the last bus’ for his late try against Racing Metro last season will attest to that. The unfortunate Luke Fitzgerald is a loss, but both Dave Kearney and McFadden would have been pushing him close for the selection anyway.
Robert Kearney is officially the best player in Ireland at the moment, so his presence in the Leinster starting XV is a huge boon to the team and their supporters. However, he was a doubt for this game right until the last minute, and there’s no telling how his injured back will hold up. It’s something that Ulster won’t be shy in checking out.
Stefan Terblanche is a rock at the back for Ulster, a huge upgrade in competence and concentration over the flashy Aussie Adam D’Arcy. At this stage of his career, Terblanche is a fullback in the Girvan Dempsey mould: imperturbable, stately, reassuring. Andrew Trimble filled his boots with tries in the Christmas period [dotting down five times in four games over December and January] but looks to have lost the knack recently. He’s become an important leader for Ulster this season, assuming the mantle of a senior player, and takes on an awful lot of ball – especially when Jackson is at outhalf – in the middle of the park. Tries aren’t the be-all and end-all for a winger, even though you want to be scoring them regularly. Trimble’s midfield work for the team is a big part of their gameplan.
Craig Gilroy announced his talents to the wider rugby world with his spectacular quarter-final five-pointer against Munster, but Irish rugby fans will have been aware of his try-scoring prowess since his days for the Irish U20s. The guy has a nose for the line and a hell of a lot of pace, but he’s not as effective as Trimble in traffic just yet, and it’s difficult to know how often he’ll get his hands on the ball in good positions with Jackson at No10.
It’s a tough game to call. Leinster are carrying some injured players and don’t look quite as rested as their opponents, while Ulster give off an air of confidence that is stronger than you’d expect for underdogs.
The northern province are getting a lot of props for their set-piece and Chris Henry for his breakdown efforts, but in their two knock-out games they’ve lived off scraps: 37% possession in the semi-final against Edinburgh and a rubbish 28% in Thomond. If you’ve got strong set-pieces, how come you’re playing without the ball for so long? The key to their game is how they play without the ball. Their defense this season has been little short of outstanding, and their effort against Munster was the work of men possessed.
Leinster’s lineout looked ropey in both their quarter-final against Cardiff and their semi-final in Bordeaux, but made a vast improvement against a quality outfit in Glasgow in the Pro12 semi-final. Some of that goes down to Devin Toner, but there was an overall improvement in communication, variety and accuracy. Their scrum isn’t exactly a behemoth, but it’s a very competitive unit.
Having highlighted Ulster’s defense, it’s only fair to give credit to Leinster’s work without the ball. The blues haven’t conceded a try in the Heineken Cup since Colin Gregor’s five pointer for Glasgow back in January, keeping Montpellier, Cardiff and Clermont from breaching their line.
Both teams have good defenses, both teams have high-percentage place-kickers, but Leinster have slightly more in attack and a deeper bench. If Leinster don’t have any untagged injuries going into the game, the reigning champions to retain.