Pre-match press conferences rarely elicit much in the way of insight or emotion, but Isa Nacewa needed just one syllable to communicate both at the RDS yesterday, writes Brendan O’Brien.
A 30-6 loss to Ulster was somewhat harsh on Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium three weeks ago, but the use of the word “predictable” by Ulster defence coach Joe Barakat when describing their opponents’ attack in a mid-game interview will have smarted just as much.
“Yes,” said Nacewa. Enough said.
Tonight’s Guinness PRO12 semi-final at the RDS is interesting for any number of other reasons beyond the obvious. It was four years to the day yesterday these two provinces contested the Heineken Cup final in Twickenham, when Leinster were the monarchs and Ulster the failed usurpers.
Both sides’ social standings in the European game have fallen in more recent times, but the gap between them is not the chasm it appeared that day in London in 2012. Equally noteworthy is the manner in which their styles have changed.
Leinster were a joy to watch back then under Joe Schmidt. Though founded on a mean pack, their successes will always be remembered for an ability to produce scintillating as well as hard-nosed rugby. It is an exuberance they have lost in recent seasons.
Barakat’s observation, misjudged or not, was one shared by many and the narrative surrounding Leinster approaching this game has been one of a team leaning on a mean pack, aiming to keep it tight and pulverise the opposition into submission.
Preferably on a wet day.
Ulster, by way of contrast, are learning to express themselves that bit more. Like a young adult leaving the last vestiges of their teenage years behind. With Nick Williams moving on and two opensides in the pack, width is the new mantra up north. But there is more to them that that.
“They don’t mind playing with a bit more width,” Leinster coach Leo Cullen said. “They are a strong team defensively, they go hard at the breakdown and they make life pretty uncomfortable. The penalty count last week at the Ospreys was 10-0 against Ulster in the first-half.
“So they are a team that is more than happy to be on the edge at the breakdown. Some of that will be in our control and some of it will be in the officials’ control. That’s what makes them quite a hard team to play against.”
Ultimately, there are no points for style or grace at this time of the year. There aren’t even any points. Knockout rugby is rarely pretty – witness last weekend’s Champions Cup final in Lyon – and there are players on both sides who know that well.
Nacewa was a key figure on a number of Leinster teams that not only stymied Ulster’s European ambitions in 2012 but ones that did for their rivals’ PRO12 hopes over the course of three different seasons in recent times. All three games were at the RDS.
“You’ve just got to win at the end of the day,” said Nacewa. “It’s not about brand. it’s not about style in play-off footie, you’ve just got to win. That last 20 minutes of any play-off match is the most crucial. That’s when you have to execute the best we have the whole season.
“That’s why we play the game.”
The venue will help. No team has lost a home semi-final in six years of PRO12 play-offs though Ulster will have looked at the dwindling margins - from 15 points in 2011 to half-a-dozen in 2013 and just four two years ago – on their previous three knockout visits to Dublin and believe this is their time.
Close to 5,000 fans in the RDS will be theirs, they have a settled side untroubled by injuries, their form is favourable and they face a Leinster side that hasn’t delivered anything approximating to a convincing victory against meaningful opposition since at least January.
Not that Cullen sees it that way.
“Look, we needed a bloody good performance against Treviso (two weeks ago) and I think we took a few steps there,” he said. “We went back to basics that week and it’s what we needed to do. There’s still a lot of improvement we can make and we’ve been looking at over the last two weeks.
“Not having a game in the week of the European final gives you a chance to prepare early for this week. Once again it comes back to play-off rugby, (it is about) who can execute under pressure and who can do the basics best. This is what we’ve been building towards.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner