Backrow battle to determine finely poised decider
19/05/2012 - 13:15:07
By Ian Cusack
It could hardly be more finely poised. After the recent dominance of Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup, the first ever all Irish final has finally arrived and who would have thought it wouldn’t feature Munster?
However, the absence of the Thomond Park outfit is probably Ulster’s biggest badge of honour going into today’s final against the almighty Leinster. Joe Schmidt’s team may be looking to do what only the Leicester Tigers have achieved before in winning back-to-back Heineken Cups, but Ulster have already eclipsed what was a unique achievement by the Tigers by going to Thomond Park and coming away with a Heineken Cup victory.
With the biggest stage in club rugby awaiting it will have surprised few that Brian O’Driscoll has come through his injury scare to take his place alongside his old pal D’Arcy in midfield. At this stage O’Driscoll has become one of those players you want on the pitch from the start just to affect the mindset of the opposition. With Eoin O’Malley ruled out with a ligament injury the Ulstermen wouldn’t have been too disappointed to see O’Driscoll’s name omitted from the team sheet.
For Leinster his inclusion is huge. It allows Schmidt to deploy McFadden on the wing causing as little disruption as possible to his settled back line. In fact there is a degree of familiarity throughout this Leinster side which is perhaps their biggest advantage going into today’s showdown.
Brad Thorn represents one of just two changes from the XV who pulled off the great escape in last year’s final against Northampton in the Millennium Stadium. Nathan Hines was Cullen’s lock partner in that fixture while Shane Horgan wore the number 14 jersey.
So 12 months on Leinster have replaced a Scottish legend with an All Black great and the only switch in the backline sees Rob Kearney, my personal choice for European player of the year, come into full back pushing Nacewa onto the wing. It’s fair to say the champions haven’t exactly weakened since lifting the cup last year.
But for Ulster today represents something completely different. A first final since their only triumph in 1999 and ask any Ulsterman, they are sick of talking about 1999. For too long they have lived in the shadow of Munster and Leinster, forced to endure the tag of Ireland’s third best province.
Well they have shaken that title off with vigour and while Leinster have experience on their side today Ulster have a hunger which won’t be matched. The big question is whether they can control their passion and determination and produce it in the right ways as they did in the quarter-final at Thomond.
In Limerick they bullied Munster at the breakdown where Stephen Ferris in particular was outstanding. Again today Ulster seem to have the edge in the back row department.
Schmidt has made the interesting call of leaving Jennings on the bench meaning his most effective groundhog won’t be there to challenge Ferris and Henry at the breakdown.
Henry has been immense for Ulster and his inclusion is equally as important as BOD’s for Leinster.
Big questions will be asked by Henry, Ferris and Wannenburg at ruck time, the trio put on an expert display of slowing the ball down against Munster. If Heaslip, O’Brien and McLaughlin don’t match the workrate of their opposing unit Eoin Reddan’s quick distribution could be neutralised.
Meanwhile, another tantalising contest will unfold two rows up where two familiar front rows will collide. Mike Ross will fancy his chances on putting pressure on Tom Court who has bad memories of scrummaging in front of a packed Twickenham.
But on the other side of the pack Cian Healy will lock horns with John Afoa in a battle which is tougher to call. All Black legend Afoa is one of the finest scrummagers in the game and is arguably Ulster’s most important recent import. Afoa will be targeting the first scrum to make a statement against Healy and if the Leinster man buckles Ruan Pienaar has shown how deadly he can be from the boot even within his own half.
In Pienaar we meet probably Ulster’s greatest asset. Over the years the South African has been one of those players who can blow hot or cold with performances ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime but his recent form for Ulster has been irresistible.
While his long-range goal kicking has been a major advantage, the real positive Pienaar brings is his vision and decision-making. When on song he sees opportunities others cannot and he backs himself time and time again.
Against Edinbugh the scrum half was ruthless when the time came to pin the Scottish outfit back and was O’Gara-esque with some of his touch finds.
Jonathan Sexton knows that Pienaar is his competition when it comes to game management, something which Sexton has struggled with in the green of Ireland. But this isn’t Ireland, this is Leinster, the team Sexton guided to European glory in 2009 before inspiring them in 2011. Pienaar may be Ulster’s superstar but Sexton has a habit of being Leinster’s hero on Heineken Cup final day.
It could hardly be more finely poised.
Prediction: This Leinster team are used to winning and are so comfortable with themselves and the size of the occasion. I’ve fancied them to win all season so I won’t change now. But if they do claim back-to-back titles, Ulster are going to make sure they earn it. Expect one hell of a battle.
Ian Cusack will be standing up with the Ulster and Leinster men on our live Heineken Cup blog from London at 4pm today. He will be joined by Robert Mulhern in London and Barry Coughlan from the Irish Examiner. Check it out on our homepage.
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