IT HAS BEEN another extraordinary season in the Heineken Cup, with incredible drama and excitement from the opening round of fixtures right up to the semi finals three weeks ago.
This is the competition that just keeps on giving.
The final beckons on Saturday, which will see an Irish invasion to London as champions Leinster look to make it two in a row as they face a familiar foe in Ulster. Those who think Joe Schmidt’s side will cruise through this final are mistaken.
This will be a battle royale, make no mistake. But where will this final be won and lost?
Prepare for Warfare
Ulster have played with a physicality in this season’s Heineken Cup that has been quite staggering. Their ferocity in the contact area and work at the breakdown has been powerful and the Ulster eight is littered with big, strong men who thrive at the collisions.
The inclusion of Chris Henry in the squad is significant as he is a vastly underrated player, who will aim to deprive Leinster of as much good ball as possible and his presence will aid the Ulster defensive effort no end. Henry is powerful, quick and a nuisance for the opposition. Presuming he is fighting fit, the back row trio of Henry, Ferris and Wannenburg is formidable.
It is likely that Leinster will pick Kev McLaughlin ahead of Shane Jennings so as to bring some more physicality of their own to the table, but even at that, there is very little in it. Lest we forget that Stephen Ferris is a human wrecking ball and will be frothing at the mouth at the prospect of getting his paws on Jonny Sexton. Leinster, on the other hand, will look to have Ferris chasing the shadows of their midfield for the afternoon.
The battle up front is set to be a seismic one, with the set piece proving as crucial as ever. The return of John Afoa will mean the Ulster scrum is a weapon and Cian Healy will have a task on his hands containing the Kiwi. The caveat to that of course is that Healy is a powerhouse in the loose.
The lineout will be intriguing with the probable selection of McLaughlin for Leinster offering them another option in this facet of the game. Richardt Strauss will need to improve his darts from the semi final while Ulster should encounter no such problems with Rory Best.
Looking at the two packs, it is difficult to predict who will come out on top. One thing is for certain; it is going to be ferocious. Ulster are incredibly combative but Leinster aren’t exactly the shy and retiring type either. Throw the likes of Brad Thorn, Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Stephen Ferris, Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller into the mixer and you are going to get fireworks.
It is when you start drifting outside of the packs that a gulf starts to emerge between the two sides. Ruan Pienaar is a class act and a match winner but Paddy Jackson is a relative novice, who Leinster will surely target should he be named at fly half. Gifted though he is, Jackson doesn’t have the benefit of Heineken Cup final experience; something which his opposite number has in spades.
The Ulster 10 does have shades of Jonny Sexton three years ago in terms of his confidence and indeed ability, but the Leinster playmaker has since matured into a truly world-class operator for his province. Jackson is not there yet.
The Leinster back three are a class apart and key for Ulster will be cutting them off at source. This will mean preventing Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll from putting the trio into space with their inventive passing game.
The Leinster attacking game has been honed by the perfectionist that is Joe Schmidt and every detail, down to the exact angle of a decoy running line, will have been constructed with the purpose of putting their strike runners into space.
Of course, Ulster have of plenty of talent of their own in the wide channels in the shape of Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy but Leinster definitely have an edge here. Both Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa would be very close to a current world fifteen, while Fergus McFadden isn’t a bad sub to bring in either.
This Ulster side should not be underestimated and you would have to imagine their pack will tear into the Leinster eight from the outset. Once Leinster start getting quick ball and find their groove, they won’t be stopped. Ulster will look to prevent this from happening by being as disruptive and destructive as possible in everything they do.
You can see this game being very tight for at least 60 minutes but given the quality that Leinster possess behind the scrum, they will have enough firepower to get that all decisive score. It is extremely difficult to envisage Ulster preventing Schmidt’s side from scoring a try for eighty minutes. Leinster by 6-9 points.
One thing is for certain; this game will not be for the squeamish.