DONAL LENIHAN: This one could get dirty

With two finals on their doorstep and not an Aviva Premiership team in sight, the natives are getting restless

The Irish are the talk of Europe at present. For our counterparts in England, the sight of an Irish invasion of Twickenham on Saturday is too much to bear. With two European finals on their doorstep and not an Aviva Premiership team in sight, the natives are getting restless.

The fact that Edinburgh concentrated all their efforts in making the Heineken Cup semi-finals, to their detriment in the RaboDirect Pro12, where they won only six of their 22 league games, has added fuel to the fire. Despite the fact Twickenham is an 82,000 sell-out on Saturday, with over 50,000 tickets shifted before the knockout stages in April, the French and English are seeking change.

The nub of their dissatisfaction is that while they are killing themselves to make the top six and qualification for the Heineken Cup through a domestic league where the potential threat of relegation is always a live issue, they cannot pick and choose when to play their strongest side like their European counterparts in the RaboDirect Pro12.

With two years to go before all parties to the Heineken Cup must agree a new accord, the English and French are about to campaign for change. Fundamental to this is that qualification for the Heineken Cup is linked directly to your finishing position in the French, English and RaboDirect leagues. The French want the top six to qualify automatically in a pared down competition — reduced from 24 to 20 teams — with a slot kept for the winners of both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups. The English are reported to want to keep 24 teams in the tournament with the top eight in each league qualifying. This could potentially result in no side from Scotland or Italy participating in the Heineken Cup.

That is unlikely to happen, however. Any change in the tournament’s format must have the unanimous backing of the board of the ERC, which contains representatives from both Scotland and Italy. This one could get dirty and will become the primary focus for the ERC after Saturday’s final as any proposed changes to the existing format can be tabled for discussion two years out from the end of the current agreement. Watch this space.

None of that will worry the Leinster or Ulster camps as they prepare for a unique final that showcases the best the Irish game has to offer.

Leinster’s passing style has won universal acclaim and their place at the summit of the RaboDirect disproves the theory in England that the Irish are only prepared to fight on one front. Leinster are unbeaten in this season’s Heineken Cup, their opening draw away to Montpellier their only blemish, and have won 18 of their 22 Rabo fixtures. That despite providing 14 players to Ireland’s World Cup squad.

Ulster, with only four players in Declan Kidney’s squad, failed to make the league play-offs but have been very competitive in Europe all season, beating Aviva Premiership finalists Leicester Tigers 41-7 in Ravenhill.

The game that will reinforce their belief that they can go all the way and upset the odds was the 19-15 defeat away to Clermont Auvergne in their final pool match last January. Clermont’s 57-14 defeat of Brive at the Stade Marcel Michelin last Saturday was their 42nd consecutive win at home and few sides have run them as close as Ulster did. Ulster will also draw from the fact they fared much better up front against the giant Clermont pack than Leinster did in the semi-final in Bordeaux.

However, the difficulty in trying to beat Leinster is that their attacking prowess is such that they tend to rack up points even off the slimmest rations of possession. Their 10-point assault on Clermont in the opening seven minutes of the second half was so typical of the way they play and stands as a clear warning to Ulster that if they lack concentration for the briefest of periods then they will be punished.

The one big obstacle facing Leinster this weekend is that they have only been in a position to focus on this final and the relative strengths and weaknesses of Ulster since Monday morning. Ulster on the other hand had their feet up all weekend after doing the hard work in the comfortable surrounds of Vilamoura in the Algarve for four days last week. They have been focused on this decider since beating Edinburgh.

Ulster’s performance in that semi-final was poor by comparison to that away showing in Clermont and miles behind the outstanding physical effort against Munster in the quarter-final. They are capable of producing one big performance and if they get into the position that Northampton found themselves in during last year’s decider, will be in far better physical condition to close the deal. They are fit, primed and ready to go.

On the other hand, if Leinster get out of the blocks early and register points on the board, they will be very difficult to beat. Their defence is masterful, especially now that Brian O’Driscoll is back in midfield and directing everybody in their defensive chores. While an element of doubt hangs over him with a knee injury, you can be certain that he will be starting on Saturday. He has endured too much pain and hours of rehabilitation after his surgery post the World Cup to miss this one.

One man who will be sweating more than most this weekend is Declan Kidney. The result will matter little to him as he will be far more interested in those on his squad list for the three-Test tour to New Zealand. Paul O’Connell is already in a race against time to recover for the series and you just wonder what effect that will have on him long term. Having already rushed the recovery process on the same knee injury to make Munster’s quarter-final, surely he would be better served being allowed to recover fully and be ready for the start of next season.

His presence was sorely missed against the Ospreys last Friday on a chastening night for Munster rugby. It is clear O’Connell, more than anyone else, is key to extracting the most from the next generation of Munster hopefuls who are having to absorb some harsh lessons at present.


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