The history of Irish interprovincial rugby began with a clash between Ulster and Leinster in 1875. Just 137 years later, more history is to be made between the two at Twickenham Stadium.
And certainly the fact the teams know each other so well will do much to narrow the gap that bookies and several pundits seem determined to put between them leading up to the 17th running of the Heineken Cup Final.
The two took very different routes to the final. Leinster made relatively light work of a pool that included Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier before comfortably dispatching the Cardiff Blues in the quarterfinal. This gave them their biggest task this season to date – travel to Bordeaux and defeat a determined Clermont team, and determined the Frenchmen certainly were, yet defeat them Joe Schmidt’s men definitely did.
The Ulstermen had much more to contend with in their pool, despite the presence of the now-defunct Italian franchise Aironi. The real challenge was posed by Clermont and the two-time champions Leicester Tigers, and by virtue of their excellent record at Ravenhill in this competition plus a gritty bonus point loss (which many feel they should have gotten more from) in France, they pinched the 8th and final quarterfinal spot.
And as if the task wasn’t already hard for Brian McLaughlin & his troops, they then had to visit Thomond Park, where the competition witnessed arguably one it’s best ever away performances as they first established a 19-point cushion then tackled like demons to bring it home. That got them to a semi-final with Edinburgh and proved too strong at the Aviva Stadium to reach their first final since they won in 1999.
So at lunchtime on Friday the two coaches named their 23-man squads for the big occasion and as expected, there should be fascinating battles all over the park.
At halfback, though Ulster have counted on the considerable talents of Ruan Pienaar more than once this season, you could be forgiven for wondering if young Paddy Jackson is up to the challenge of such a big event as this. But then you look across the park at his opposite number Jonathan Sexton and remember 2009 when few expected the performances he put in at both Croke Park and Murrayfield.
There’s no doubt that Jackson has the tools to make a similar name for himself and with Pienaar alongside him, much like Chris Whittaker with Sexton in 2009, he can certainly do well. From Leinster’s side Sexton will be looking to establish his high-octane offence as early as possible, and generally Eoin Reddan has been his best sidekick for doing so.
In the centre, Leinster’s illustrious pairing needs no introduction, but across from them are another combination of youth and experience that cannot be discounted. The race to succeed Brian O’Driscoll at 13 is still well and truly on and young Darren Cave certainly won’t have himself a better stage on which to show he’s in contention. Alongside him Paddy Wallace will be looking to help his outhalf keep Leinster pinned back in their own territory as much as he can with his footballing skills.
Ulster’s back three of Steffan Terblanche, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy have played huge roles in their march to the final, but even with Luke Fitzgerald’s season-ending injury, Leinster can call on the ever-reliable Fergus McFadden to take his place alongside the world-beating talents Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney – I expect the majority of the high-kicking on the day to come from the men in blue.
The popular opinion is that Ulster’s best chance of success on the day will come from their tight eight, and in Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa they have their “dream team” front row back to take on the two starting Irish props and Richardt Strauss. They will definitely need to dominate at least one set-piece early on to gain the upper hand.
Clearly the biggest weakness in Leinster’s play leading to this stage has been their lineout – it was dreadful in Bordeaux. Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn will be put under immense pressure by Ulster skipper Johann Muller and Ireland hopeful Dan Touhy in this department and possibly Kevin McLaughlin’s selection was to give them more options.
But the one area of the pitch that will be most crucial is at the breakdown, where McLaughlin is joined by Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. It could be said that those two Ireland powerhouses have had a “quiet” season by their standards, but rest assured the opposing threesome of Henry, Wanneburg and particularly Stephen Ferris will take full advantage if they’re quiet on Saturday!
Although Leinster have generally shown a measure of excellence all over the park this season, the one area that has been most consistent has been their defence. If they play at the same level without the ball, Ulster will need to act lightning fast when they force turnovers to capitalise, though in Pienaar they have just the man to do that.
As for Ulster’s defence, they showed they can live with the best with their 180-plus tackles at Thomond Park and will need every inch of that ability in London.
And if they are to produce a repeat of that famous win in Limerick, they will probably need their bench to bring the result home, although it has to be said Leinster seem to have the edge in the depth department, with a strong back-up front row plus Isaac Boss and Shane Jennings to call on if required.
Referee on the day is arguably the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer, Nigel Owens. How he sees the breakdown and the scrums unfolding could go a long way to deciding this one, but I have little doubt he will be fair and that the better side on the day will prevail.
Which of course leads me nicely to my prediction- If you have read my columns over the season you’re probably aware I’m a Leinster fan, but no matter how hard I try to be objective I just cannot see a straight contest between these two squads as turning out any other way than a 3rd victory for Leo Cullen & his men.
Having said that, a one-off cup rugby match can be affected by so many factors…an early sending-off here, a controversial decision there, and of course there’s always the old favourite of the bounce of the ball! I can see an epic battle between the two, I fully expect the men in white to stand up for the Ulstermen and do them proud while still falling short by 4-6pts.
That’s it for me this week…whether you’re travelling to the match, minding the fort back home or indeed watching abroad, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this one, and although there are definitely Irish fans going to be disappointed on the day, it will hopefully live long in the memory as a great one for the sport if rugby union in this country.