Leinster & Ulster Set For Epic Twickenham Clash
Six pools, seventy eight matches, twenty four teams; that’s what it has taken all to bring us to this one weekend. At the beginning of the Heineken Cup however, few would have called the match up in Twickenham this weekend. Hell, even by the time of the Quarter Finals few did. Ulster have done what many teams have failed to do in the past in that they have built magnificently on the promise of last season. Their exit to Northampton in the quarter finals last year may have been a comprehensive victory to the hosts, but Ulster had up until that point shown some serious mettle, particularly with them seeing off Biarritz. Thankfully they pushed on and took themselves seriously enough to reach the point they are now at, facing down the reigning champions in the final. It is no less than this team, who first brought the cup to Irish possession in 1999, deserve.
Alas, for all of the fairy-tale aspects to Ulster’s campaign, nobody will call them anything but underdogs on Saturday. They are facing down the reigning champions as said, reigning champions who somewhat indisputably proved last year in the final that no game can ever really be called out of their reach. Worse still for Ulster, Leinster have done the unthinkable and become an Irish team who are comfortable with the favourites tag. Even Munster at their peak could also be susceptible to a banana skin but Leinster have spent the last two seasons winning all the matches that counted. It will be an uphill battle for the Ulster men unless they somehow manage a massive early lead akin to that which they racked up in Thomond, but you can rest assured that as long as their players stay in one piece, they will put up the necessary fight.
From most experts, it appears that Ulster don’t have a hope of hanging on against the Blues and some even give the impression that Ulster will come out an perform like Italy, hanging in for sixty minutes and then falling off for the final twenty. Whilst this is more than a little insulting to a team of their calibre, there is one element of truth to it that I and others have addressed all season. The one flaw with Ulster is that they can be caught out when it comes to the bench. For the eight men Leinster will have to bring into the mix at any stage on Saturday, Ulster will compete with a bench of eight which, though not poor by any standard, contains a mix of players who either lack the experience to compete at this level or who may be just slightly behind in the skill set of that possessed by Leinster. It sounds bull-headed and arrogant, sounds quite like a Leinster bias to be honest, but it is just the nature of the game. Leinster have been ready for this day every season for the last four years, Ulster have the disadvantage that they are coming up against them in the final. Many other opponents would prove to be “easier” for Ulster but Leinster it cannot be denied, simply have the winning mentality of the European platform. They showed this more than ever in the Semi Final against Clermont where they won against every possible odd, even throwing in the fate of the Gods and the TMO for good measure.
So what is this all boiling down to, are Ulster written off? Well no of course not, at the end of the day they have made it to the final, they will be proven to be at least the second best team in the tournament, if not the best. It is just hard to call anything but a Leinster win, and that is down to the hard to call aspects of the game as much as the simpler comparisons. Ulster can front up to Leinster in the scrum as we have seen this season previously, Leinster’s lineout has looked weak in recent games and if not fixed could be a spot waiting to be exploited and most importantly, Ulster have the secret weapon that is Pienaar’s boot. With a no nonsense referee of Nigel Owens’ calibre on the pitch too, this could prove fruitful for Ulster and the demise of Leinster. The key point to make here, after all the last few paragraphs of jargon is said and done, is that all the pools and knock-outs every year wind down to two teams on one day. On that one day, all of Leinster’s flair and power throughout the season could elude them and count for nothing. It is all about winning the game in front of you, and in that case one can argue that either of these teams is more than capable of that. If I really have to call it, I have to bring home colours into the equation as there is no other way, Leinster win
In other news this week, the Ireland squad to face the Barbarians on Tuesday week has been announced, with Leinster players being omitted from consideration due to their involvement in the RaboDirect Pro 12 final the weekend before. There has been one large surprise omission from Kidney in the form of Ian Keatley but the rest of the squad is somewhat hard to argue with. One thing that has to be considered in this selection is that Kidney has made it clear that this is the Barbarians squad only and that he and his staff have their minds made up for quite some time on the majority of the touring squad. This does then mean that a large number of those in this selection could find themselves returned back to their provinces after this game, and more players will be called up. Whilst there will presumably be a number of Leinster players brought up, there also is the chance for players such as the omitted Keatley to get their shot in this “second” call up. Can’t read into this one too much for now basically! The other Baa Baas news is that “our very own” Isa Nacewa is to line out opposite Ireland as well as recently retired Mick O’Driscoll. The rest of the five Irish linked players are Ulster’s Afoa and Wannenburg and Munster’s BJ Botha. It may not provide any indicator of Ireland’s touring prospects but it should be some good entertainment if nothing else.
Injury concerns for Ireland continue to mount also as Felix Jones and Johne Murphy have both been ruled out of the summer tour. Kidney’s selection headaches continue it would seem but with the right choices made, Ireland are well covered in this area.