The Mole was fortunate enough to do a postgrad with a number of interesting, well-rounded people. At the weekends, they would pursue pleasant, sociable activities. The Mole would play matches of a Saturday and spend most Sundays hungover, like a good ol’ stereotype. What would it be like to pursue pleasant, sociable activities with well-rounded people? Where would the nerves come into play? That blood pumping, stomach churning switched-on feeling of a Saturday morning that served as a precursor to the main event. You’d miss it.
This is a neighbourly Heineken Cup final. Leinster v Munster developed during the noughties, the era of excess, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, DORT accents, mocha frappacinos, ladyboys, liginds, miracle matches, Claw, the Bull, Gaillimh, Stand Up and Fight, Alone It Stands, heroic defeats, epic victories. Munster stood for all that was Genuine and True, Leinster for style over substance. The disparities were magnified by the hackery and exacerbated by fans to the point of cliché as the bandwagon was hitched to first one star, then a second. In Croke Park 2009, Munster played a home match in Dublin and Irish rugby shifted on its axis. But you always knew where you stood.
Munster v Ulster? Don’t like each other. Clash of cultures rather than two sides of the same coin. Munster’s season disintegrated but when they were trouncing Northampton, the future looked bright. Ulster was the worst possible draw they could have got. Thomond held less mystique for Ulster than for any other team in the competition and Ireland’s improved road network allowed a sizable away support to weigh in.
Ulster v Leinster is a strange rivalry. It’s genuine but there’s not much edge to it. Ulster believe they can beat Leinster but at the same time Ulster hold no hoodoo over Leinster.
The Mole has come to think of Leinster as comparable to the Spanish football team. Technically adept, they struggled to win trophies for years despite an array of talent. Recently they’ve discovered success and have achieved it with a game based on possession, the ability to dictate the pace of a match and to strike when opportunity presents itself. Leinster keep the ball away from the opposition, it’s their principle means of defence.
Territory will be a big factor. Leinster are well able to keep the ball and are willing to go through ten phases to make ten yards around half way if it means making the opposition tackle. Leinster have depth on their bench and a host of players with lots of game time earned during the season who can fit in seamlessly when the time comes. Leinster will fancy exploiting the space behind Gilroy and Trimble so expect to see Rob Kearney put in some kicks from third channel if the ball gets moved across the backline. For Ulster, Ruan Pienaar’s kicking game is vital as it doesn’t seem as if Jackson is the next Ronan O’Gara. If Ulster play the game in their own half it’s difficult to see them scoring points.
Set pieces look to favour Ulster slightly with a possible edge in the scrum and a solid lineout. Court is a good loosehead but he’s no Tongaui’ha while Afoa is a serious addition to Ulster’s cause. Rory Best’s throwing is arguably the weakest part of his game and Kevin McLoughlin’s selection looks the right call for this match as much as it was the wrong call for last year’s final. Strauss’s accuracy has declined from last season but Devin Toner must be chomping at the bit for a role in the final. If Leinster get set piece parity they’ll keep the ball from Ulster for greater periods of the game. If Ulster are to win, they must disrupt Leinster’s set pieces.
Leinster have chosen to leave Shane Jennings on the bench. Leinster’s breakdown is based on well-worn patterns, adherence to the game plan, good body positions and is one of the key pieces of Joe Schmidt’s gameplan. Ulster competed for the ball at every ruck in Ravenhill in the Rabo game. Combined with the wet weather, they made it a difficult night for Leinster. Ulster must do the same today and deny Leinster quick ruck ball. If they don’t, it will be game over and a double figure margin. Nigel Owens’ refereeing will be very important. Refs show leniency one way or another, be it to the defending or attacking team at breakdown time. Glasgow slowed Leinster’s ball in the Rabo semi, lying around the tackle area, grabbing arms on the ground so that Leinster couldn’t place the ball on a plate for Eoin Reddan and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Keep an eye on Jennings when he comes on and see how much quicker ball comes back from the ruck.
Ulster have scored one try in each of their last two knockout games. Paddy Wallace is a key man for them. Jackson stands very deep for a running outhalf and it is Wallace’s distribution skills that can bring Trimble and Gilroy into the game. A lot of comment has been made about running at Jackson but Wallace is the key man to attack in Ulster’s backline and Leinster will want to force him to make tackles all day long. Leinster’s greater squad depth stands to them here also and the Mole expects Sean Cronin to have an impact when he comes off the bench.
Pienaar’s place kicking has been superb in this tournament, raising memories of Simon Mason and his red tee all those years ago. The Springbok put in one superb box kick against Edinburgh that earned his side dozens of metres and lifted the entire Ulster support. For Leinster, Sexton’s kicking has improved from hand this season and he dismantled Bath at Lansdowne with some faultless line kicking. As before, I expect to see the ball put in behind Trimble and Gilroy this afternoon.
The news that Brian O’Driscoll had an operation last week and fully expected to play did not come as a surprise. O’Driscoll is a phenomenal competitor and his display against Ulster in Ravenhill was a master class in mentality. With the game won and Leinster assured of topping the table, O’Driscoll still wouldn’t give Ulster an inch, aware that they might meet in the Heineken final. He was unwilling to give them a sniff of a chance. The Mole has confessed before about thinking that O’Driscoll was done at the end of 2008. I also thought last year that the World Cup might have come a season too late for Brad Thorn. Wrong on both counts. Leinster have The Mental. Ulster have a sense of destiny.
Ulster can win this game but a number of things need to go right for them. Leinster can change their shape, Schmidt’s cultivation of a squad and rigorous coaching has provided him with an array of options. The Mole is picking Leinster and whiling away those nervous hours before kick off.