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17 May 2012

Leinster vs Ulster - Heineken Cup Final Preview

The 17th Heineken Cup Final will be staged at Twickenham, the historic home of English rugby on Saturday 19th May. Don't be fooled though. For all those wearing rose-tinted glasses, it will be strictly an all Irish affair.

The climax of european club rugby's most prestigious tournament will be fought out between Leinster (vying for their third success in four years) and Ulster (who last won the tournament in 1999). Whichever side wins, it will be the fifth time in seven seasons that the winner's trophy will be showcased in an Irish trophy cabinet. At club level at least, Ireland seems to rule supreme.

ROAD TO THE FINAL

LEINSTER:

Pool Stages: Glasgow Warriors, Bath, Montpellier
Quarter-Final: Cardiff Blues
Semi-Final: Clermont

Joe Schmidt's Leinster side have gone though the whole competition thus far unscathed. Despite having their talisman Brian O'Driscoll missing for the early stages, they were able to sail through their group with five wins and a solitary draw. That trend continued when they entered the knockout stages, as they romped their way past a woefully out of sorts Cardiff Blues team in the quarter-final,  booking themselves a difficult date with destiny in Bordeaux. The rest as they say is history...

That semi-final against Clermont showcased all the drama for which the Heineken Cup is so heralded. The game will be forever remembered for 10 minutes of 'Kearney time', in which their inspired fullback Rob Kearney produced a searing break which resuted in a try and then converted a crucial drop goal from near the half-way line to leave both opposition players and fans in shock. It could just as easily be Clermont in the final though. Let us not forget that the difference between the two team was ultimately the width of Wesley Fofana's bicep. Sometimes great teams make their own luck...

ULSTER:

Pool Stages: Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Aironi
Quarter-Final: Munster
Semi-Final: Edinburgh

Gilroy's solo try against Munster
Ulster came through in second place in a difficult pool in the early stages of the competition, knocking out English heavyweights Leicester in the process. Their biggest test though came in the quarter-final. They faced Munster, perennial Heineken Cup challengers (and often winners), away from home at the much vaunted Thomond Park. A colossal effort in defence from Stephen Ferris, some twinkling toes from wing Craig Gilroy and some wonderful goalkicking from their adopted South African scrum half Ruan Pienaar were the key factors behind a historic win.

Ulster's semi -final against Edinburgh was far more straight-forward, with Pienaar's deadly boot again leaving the opposition pleading for mercy. Edinburgh closed the gap towards the end with a late length of the field try, but the game had already been won. Next up....the final!

KEY BATTLES

Brad Thorn/ Leo Cullen (Leinster)  Vs Johann Muller/ Dan Tuohy (Ulster)

The battle between the sides locks will be fascinating, both on the floor and up in the air. The addition of kiwi Brad Thorn to Leinster's pack has added some real bite to their pack and has shored up their scrummaging too. Joe schmidt must be ecstatic that Thorn was willing to answer his S.O.S. Leo Cullen as always remains the heart-beat of the side alongside him. Meanwhile for Ulster, Johann Muller brings with him a wealth of experience and know-how in big games. Ulster's South African spine has been incredibly influential this year and if Ulster are to be crowned champions for the second time in their history, they will need to up the ante once more. Dan Tuohy is the baby of the group, but he is hugely athletic and is a very exciting prospect. If he performs well, he will have done his international prospects now harm at all. Ireland coach Declan Kidney will be watching intently no doubt.

Jonny Sexton (Leinster) Vs Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)

If Jonny Sexton kicks Leinster to victory once more, the 'Sexton legend' will only continue to grow. Sexton apparantly gave a stirring team talk during the half-time break of last year's final, which led to an improbable comeback against Northampton Saints. Last year's Man of the Match has a very difficult kicking battle ahead of him though. Like in most finals, the scoreline is likely to be very tight between the two sides, so who comes out on top between himself and Ruan Pienaar could well decide the tie. The South African has been flawless from the tee this year and his recent influence over Ulster has been comparable to the great european competitor Dimitri Yachvilli of Biarritz. The stage is set...we could be in for some real drama once again!

PREDICTION

This game is going to be a titanic battle. I expect the game to be hugely physical, but I have a feeling Leinster's class behind the back may ultimately tell. The likes of Sexton, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Kearney and Nacewa have crucially all been here before, so one would expect that they might settle into the final more quickly than Ulster. In coach Joe Schmidt, Leinster also have one of the brightest and most innovative coaches around in world rugby. Don't be surprised to see a magnificently creative backline move on show at some point.

If however Ulster get an early march on in the final, I would fancy it to turn into a bit of an arm wrestle with Pienaar's boot making it very difficult for Leinster. Playing catch up rugby can make even the most experienced veterans do some pretty daft things and the neutrals i'm sure will be backing Ulster as underdogs. I'm sticking to my guns though and expect Leinster to win for an unprecedented 3rd time in 4 years.

Leinster by 3 points!

Who do you think will come out on top? As always leave your opinion in the comments section!


If you found this article interesting....you may enjoy the following article too:

Dumptackle's Heineken Cup Final Review (Click here)

12 comments:

  1. I liked reading this, hope you're right!

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  2. Natasha you are a lady and a scholar!

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  3. I can't see Ulster doing much to be honest. I feel their attack in the semi was left wanting. They are superb in defence but dont have the crativity in midfield to score trys against a side like Leinster. I do feel a big part of the match will come down to the scrum. Ulster seemed to really utilise a strong front-5 against Edinburgh but I think against Leinster it will be a lot closer.

    I think the first half will be tight but 3-point Ulster wont be able to compete with Leinsters attack when it gets going.

    I would put it Leinster to win by 13.

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  4. You would have to put Leinster as the favourites I think. They have so much pedigree, but you never know. If it's tight Ulster could cause an upset. I think they carry with them a lot of self belief from their South African contingent. Also, in Stephen Ferris, Ulster have arguably the player of the tournament so far.

    One thing I would point out about Ulster's scrum though is that I believe tighthead prop John Afoa will be missing in the final. So I agree with you Callum that the scrum won't be as desctructive as it was in the semi.

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  5. John Afoa is back from suspension and will be playing in the final.

    I love that everyone has written off Ulster's chance. We play better as underdogs. Ulster have a superior pack and scrum half. Bring it on!!!

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  6. Ah well even so, I can't imagine it changing things too much in the scrum. Afoa will definitely add something to Ulster's game though He is so athletic for a man of his size. Some of the tackles he makes are astonishing. Great work-rate for a front-rower. Just as impressive in attack.

    I don't think people are writing off Ulster's chance by the way Sean. They have a chance, but I think they need to keep the game tight. If they go behind by a couple of tries early on, Ulster would find it difficult to play catch up rugby. Leinster on the other hand have the backline able to do so (as shown in last year's final).

    Ulster in my opinion need to get a lead early and then put the pressure on the champions. If they succeed... I as a neutral will be very happy for them!

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  7. Anonymous18 May, 2012

    Ulster will surprise a lot of people (especially Dublin-based journos) in this final, where they generally are written off. What I think will clinch it for them is this very fact and combined with a self-belief that this is their time and this is their chance to say goodbye to outgoing coach McLaughlin on a high. It is almost as if Ulster believe they simply have to win it that I believe that they will. The mental attitude is right for this battle.

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    1. Anonymous18 May, 2012

      quote examples of the Dublin-based journos who have written Ulster off

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  8. Yes I can imagine Ulster are developing a siege mentality in that regard.

    You make a valid point about the outgoing coach. I rememebr the Brumbies facing a similar scenario in the Super 12 a few years ago when Laurie fisher was sacked mid-season, but effectively told to continue on until the end of the season. They ended up hammering the Crusaders in the final.

    What must incoming Ulster coach Mark Anscombe be thinking? If Ulster do shock Leinster tomorrow, he will be inheriting a difficult job (considering expectations will be very high next year).

    Having said that Leinster did something similar with the replacement of Michael Cheika with Joe Schmidt following their first European success.

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    1. Yes, but Cheika walked and Schmidt was brought in. One name replacing another Sadly McLaughlin was removed mid-season and replaced by a nobody with less knowledge and experience than the incumbent McLaughlin.

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    2. That's a fair point. Personally I don't rate Anscombe all that highly. It seems that they have just hired a kiwi because he is a kiwi.

      One must say though that although McLaughlin got Ulster to the final, they didn't win. They were quite emphatically beaten in fact and some of the reasons they lost so comprehensively were down to the decision making of the coach.

      The decision to play Jackson at flyhalf over Humphreys...who then struggled...and the refusal to bring him off until late on. Jackson may turn out to be a great player but he was only 20 and clearly the game was too big for him.

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