Having failed in three successive League finals, there is an almost manic desire on Leinster’s part to rectify that situation tonight
RABODIRECT PRO12 FINAL:
Ulster v Leinster
1. Set-piece war
When Ulster’s front five are in the groove, their set-piece is one of the best in Europe.
Having dominated all comers in the opening months of the season, they lost their mojo somewhat when Northampton upset the odds in the second of their back-to-back Heineken Cup games at Ravenhill last December. It took them time to recover.
It didn’t help that a key component of that unit, Rory Best, was away with Ireland for the Six Nations and encountering problems of his own in the continued absence of Paul O’Connell. Best, normally such an outstanding set-piece operator, suffered a badly-timed case of the yips with his line-out throwing. It cost him his place on the Lions tour. But the Ulster hooker is back to his best and will be keen to show Warren Gatland as much today.
Ulster’s line-out, under the direction of captain Johann Muller, is once again functioning with its customary accuracy after the complete systems failure against Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter-final. Muller carried an injury that day and Ulster suffered. In recent weeks, however, those issues have been rectified and Leo Cullen faces a stern examination this afternoon.
The scrum is where Ulster have laid their foundation for success all season. On the assumption that John Afoa is fully recovered from his recent hamstring issues then Leinster, even with their all-Irish front row, will be in for a stern examination. Tom Court has always performed better for Ulster than Ireland and will be keen to remind his international room-mate Mike Ross that his worst performance of the season, against Scotland at Murrayfield, was a one-off. If Ulster get an edge on Ross and Lion-in-waiting Cian Healy, then IRUPA player of the year Nick Williams will have the perfect launchpad to make inroads into Leinster’s first line of defence. He will suck in at least two defenders, opening space for others to exploit.
2. Back row supremacy
Nick Williams has been a revelation for Ulster this season, so much so that, on his return from Northampton, Roger Wilson has barely got a look in. The emergence of Chris Henry as a genuine open side of international quality allied to the rapid development of Iain Henderson and the excellent form of Robbie Diack has even helped to compensate for the loss of the indomitable Stephen Ferris.
Ulster have been ferocious at the breakdown and as a result, Sean O’Brien’s loss to Leinster could not have been worse timed. They are fortunate to have Kevin McLaughlin back to fill the gap even if O’Brien will be sorely missed. In Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings, Leinster have two players who tend to use brain not brawn to be effective. That could be telling. Ulster prefer to overload at the breakdown, making it a battle of brute strength whereas Leinster will look to keep the ball off the deck and offload out of the tackle.
Dan Tuohy has had a fine season for Ulster and with Muller back to full fitness, their ability to carry presents opportunities for Williams and Diack to exploit. Ulster were strangely subdued in the contact area in that Heineken Cup quarter-final but Muller’s arm injury had a major effect on Ulster’s efficiency out of touch and at the breakdown. For Leinster’s back row to dictate matters, Devin Toner, Cullen, Ross and Healy will have to concentrate more on hitting rucks and cleaning out bodies than carrying ball. If they succeed in generating any semblance of quick ball, they have an edge at half-back and midfield, where the return of Brian O’Driscoll offers Leinster a major boost.
3. Leinster desire greater than ever
Despite winning a fourth European title in five seasons with last weekend’s Amlin win over Stade Francais, Leinster have even more incentive to win tonight.
Without ever admitting as much, Joe Schmidt’s selection policy in relation to last weekend’s decider did nothing to mask the fact that the title they want more from their two season finales is that of Rabo Pro 12 champions. Having failed in three successive finals, there is an almost manic desire to rectify that situation. The title would mean even more this season given that they were outside the top four at one stage and Ulster beat them in their two league outings.
The departure of Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa also makes it a significant night for the Leinster faithful, not to mention the elevation of Schmidt to the Ireland role.
Leinster are fresher than in their last two Rabo finals but have been compromised due to the loss of Gordon D’Arcy and O’Brien.
By comparison, Ulster are in good shape, with Ferris and Paddy Wallace their biggest losses. That said, they have competed admirably without Ferris all season. Having led the way for practically the entire league campaign, Ulster will be desperate to finish the job and had this game been staged in Ravenhill then you would fancy them to close the deal.
While they look capable of dominating the physical exchanges up front, the big question surrounds their ability to translate that possession into points. On that front Leinster look far more potent and, with their defence back to its best against Stade Francais, Ulster will struggle to score tries. Ian Madigan looks a comfortable fit at inside centre and his positioning alongside Sexton offers them a massive advantage in terms of tactical kicking and clever distribution.
Paddy Jackson doesn’t threaten the gain line and is more of a link player. Outside him Stuart Olding has emerged from nowhere to make Ireland’s tour of North America. He has excelled in every outing and his clash with Madigan will be key to Ulster opening up attacking opportunities for their excellent back three of Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. For Ulster to win, that trio will have to get their hands on the ball as often as possible. Leinster will target that Ulster midfield as a result and Darren Cave’s distribution will come under pressure. That offers Leinster a slight advantage but it’s going to be a very tight contest.
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