Leinster’s cutting edge should see Cullen lift cup again
All aboard then for a celebration of Irish club rugby, the like of which has never been seen before and, who knows, might not be seen again. These are momentous times for the game on the island and the expected 82,000 crowd for today’s European decider at Twickenham marks the high-water mark of one country’s unique and enduring love affair with the Heineken Cup.
The expectation is that the day will end with Leo Cullen lifting the trophy for the third time in four seasons and it is an image that is difficult to dislodge after a week when every potential strength and weakness has been inspected and dissected.
That said, Ulster will have trawled through the tape of Leinster’s mashing at the hands of Northampton for 40 minutes in last year’s final as well as their difficulties at scrum and lineout against Clermont Auvergne three weeks ago.
Honours may be even in the scrum this time but the lineout will be a key area for Ulster who, in Rory Best, possess Europe’s most accurate thrower and, in Johann Muller, a fetcher par excellence who has claimed 15 more darts than his nearest rival in this year’s campaign.
With that in mind, it was no surprise to see Leinster name Kevin McLaughlin in their back row rather than Shane Jennings yesterday. McLaughlin will offer the occasionally wayward Richardt Strauss with another badly-needed option today.
It is what Leinster do with their possession, more than the volume of it, that will worry Ulster most. Edinburgh may rank above them in the official list of the continent’s attacking teams but Joe Schmidt’s side possess the ability to cut a side to ribbons with very little ball.
Ten minutes was all it took for them to break the semi-final open against Clermont three weeks ago and Glasgow provided a timely dry run of what they can expect from their northern cousins in last week’s RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final.
Glasgow frustrated the Irish side time and again at the breakdown, as Chris Henry and Co. must do here, and Rory Best spoke yesterday about Ulster’s confidence in their defence while stressing the need to bring more than obstinacy to the table.
The expectation must be that Leinster will probe the ten channel manned by 20-year-old out-half Paddy Jackson in a manner Edinburgh failed to in the Aviva Stadium semi-final and questions stand, too, over the youngster’s attacking prowess.
Ruan Pienaar took the plaudits for a sublime display against Edinburgh in Dublin but it is nigh on impossible to see Ulster winning if Jackson’s brief with ball in hand isn’t one limited to endless kicking or avoiding mistakes.
Ian Humphries, defensively frail but capable of brilliance going forward, is bound for London Irish come the summer but he may well be needed off the bench if Ulster find themselves adrift and in need of a spark.
The problem there is that Leinster’s defence is every bit as good as their opponent’s. A measly 30% possession was enough for Ulster in Thomond Park in late April. Anything like a repeat and it will be a long and painful day in London.
We will be standing up with the Ulster men on our live Heineken Cup blog from London at 4pm tomorrow. Well worth a look.
© This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, May 19, 2012