Leinster and Ulster target European supremacy
May 18, 2012
Leinster are hunting a third Heineken Cup victory in four seasons © Getty Images
Leinster and Ulster will descend on Twickenham to contest the 17th Heineken Cup final on Saturday with only one thing for certain: the most coveted trophy in club rugby will be returning to Ireland again.
For the fifth time in seven seasons an Irish team will lift the trophy, making their toils at international level all the more puzzling. Forget national allegiances, though, as provincial rivalry and the pursuit of personal and collective glory will ensure a partisan atmosphere in the stands and a ferocious contest on the pitch, with the rest of Europe watching on, green with envy.
Trophy holders Leinster are strong favourites to be crowned European champions for an unprecedented third time in four seasons after their impressive surge to the final. They won five out of six in the pool stage before sweeping past Cardiff Blues 34-3 and then knocked out the highly-fancied Clermont Auvergne 19-15 in a thrilling semi-final that turned out to be one of the encounters of the tournament so far.
Leinster's dazzling attacking game has set them appart from their rivals this season, leading to many pundits proclaiming them the top team in Europe already. But that honour will only be decided when the trophy is awarded on Saturday afternoon. And Ulster will be hoping their more prosaic qualities of teamwork, Ruan Pienaar's kicking and unrelenting spirit, can be enough to upset Leinster.
Ulster promise to be formidable opponents. The 1999 champions, the first Irish club to win the tournament, are back in the European rugby's final showdown after a 13-year wait. And, despite faltering in the RaboDirect Pro12 this season, their form in the Heineken Cup has been conclusive. In the quarter-final they overcame Irish rivals and two-time winners Munster 22-16 at Thomond Park before holding off Edinburgh's compelling late bid for a final spot, with a 22-19 victory over the Scots in the semi-final.
Leinster - Player to Watch: The obvious choice: Brian O'Driscoll. The Ireland skipper may not carry the armband for Leinster but is in so many ways the talisman of the team, in defence, in attack and in attitude. There were doubt over his fitness coming into the match but O'Driscoll is one of the most resilient characters in the game and he was not going to miss this one. His big hits and scavenging will be key to Leinster's defence while he has looked as dangerous as ever in attack within coach Joe Schmidt's framework.
Leinster - Team News: The defending champions welcome back Rob Kearney to the backline along with O'Driscoll. Isa Nacewa therefore shifts from fullback to left wing where he replaces Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden on the right wing. Leo Cullen returns to skipper Leinster from second-row with Kevin McLaughlin preferred to Shane Jennings in the back-row.
Ulster - Player to Watch: If O'Driscoll is the talisman Leinster are desperate to patch up and throw into the heat of battle, then Stephen Ferris is his equivalent for Ulster. Ferris continues to defy the of limitations of persistent injuries . His big tackling will be crucial in defence if Ulster are to halt the Leinster's big runners, including Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy, on the gain-line while his carrying in attack will be one of their biggest weapons on the day.
Ulster - Team News: Ulster's hopes are boosted by the return of Chris Henry and John Afoa to their forward pack. Back-rower Henry missed the semi-final against Edinburgh with an ankle injury while prop Afoa is back from a four-match suspension for a dangerous tackle. Young fly-half Paddy Jackson is retained ahead of Ian Humphreys, who is on the bench.
Key Battle: If Ulster are to suffocate Leinster's ruthless attacking game, they will need a huge defensive effort in plugging the holes around the ruck and stemming the flow of quick ball to the Leinster backs. Ulster will need a big workload across the board but their mighty back-row of Ferris, Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg must be at the heart of their effort. Leinster often utilise the carrying of Heaslip and others around the ruck to maintain variety in their attacks and set the platform to unleash their backs. But if the Ulster forwards can halt their opponents and force Leinster wide early, their opponent's backline will become far more predictable and far less potent.
Trivia: The Heineken Cup final is set to be shown in more than 100 countries will - none will be more transfixed than Ireland of course.
Stats: Brian O'Driscoll needs one try to equal Vincent Clerc's record of 32 tries in the history of the Heineken Cup.
"Any time we've played them it's really been like hand-to-hand combat out there and we're not expecting anything different. I'm sure they'll be coming for us with everything they've got, but that's what finals are about." - Mike Ross, Leinster
"I am chasing one of my dreams. This is one of my dreams, to win a Heineken Cup final. I was fortunate to win a couple of Currie Cups and a couple of Super 14s and for sure this is right up there in my career. In a final, any team can win." - Pedrie Wanneburg, Ulster.
Prediction: Ulster to rise to the occassion with a super-human effort, but ultimately Leinster's extra cutting edge and big match experience will ensure they retain the trophy and underline their reputation as the best team in Europe.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton