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Leinster Rugby vs Ulster Rugby
Heineken Cup Final
Twickenham, London
Saturday, 19th May 2012, 17:00

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights TG4, 22:00

Leinster arrive at their third Heineken Cup final on the back of their most successful season ever in terms of wins. Their victory over Glasgow in the Pro 12 semi-final made it 26 wins, 2 draws and only 3 defeats in 31 games this season. With two of those defeats coming in the first three weeks of the season while the World Cup was still on, their record is an even more impressive 1 defeat in their last 28 games.

Yet, for all that if Leinster lose their two last games, their season will be considered a failure. It's tough, but those are the standards Leinster have set for themselves in recent years. The Ospreys will come to the RDS for the Pro12 final on Sunday week and judging by their dismantling of Munster, they'll be optimistic about repeating their success in the 2010 final in the same venue. However that game is work for another day, for this week is all about the big match in London.

Leinster are looking to make history this weekend by becoming the only the second team to win back to back trophies, after Leicester did it at the start of the century. Perhaps even more crucially, a win would make them the first team to win three cups in four years, a feat that even the mighty Toulouse have never achieved. Standing in their way though is a hungry Ulster team back in the final for the first time in 13 years.

Ulster have a complicated history with the top trophy. Back in 1999, when the future of the tournament was in doubt after the self-serving English clubs boycotted it, they had one incredible season. Served by the brawn of Andy Ward, the guile of David Humphries and the boot of Simon Mason, they had a remarkable run to the final defeating French giants like Toulouse and Stade Francais along the way. The white army then took over Dublin for a day as they comfortably beat Columbiers in Lansdowne Road.

It was a landmark result in Irish rugby, showing that the provinces could compete and win in Europe. The bitter irony for the Northerners though was that it was first Munster and later Leinster who were the main beneficiaries of this new-found belief. The season after they won it, Ulster lost all six of their pool matches and they slipped into the doldrums that saw them fail to qualify from their pool for 11 straight seasons. They looked on jealously as their neighbours down south took the spotlight, the glory and the trophies.

When Humphries, their captain in the 1999 final, took over as Director of Rugby in 2009, he resolved to put them back on top. After signing a fair few dud imports ove the years, Humphries resolved to shop from Harrods for a change and in 2010 in came top class South African talent in Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar. The South African influence coupled with the homegrown talents of the likes of Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble was enough to finally break their duck and they got out of their pool last season before losing to Northampton in the quarter-final.

This season, two more quality imports in John Afoa and Stefan Terrblanche (replacing the injured Jared Payne) were added to the mix. It's not just about the foreign players though as a young generation of homegrown talent is increasingly having a big influence. Craig Gilroy has become a star on the wing, Paul Marshall has had some big moments and Paddy Jackson has been thrust into the side and handled himself with aplomb. The still relatively young Darren Cave and Chris Henry have also become mainstays of the side.

Despite a disappointing Pro12 campaign, they've excelled in Europe with the highlight being the destruction of Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill in January. They followed that up with an amazing win over Munster in Thomond Park and though the nerves of being favourites affected their performance in the semi-final against Edinburgh, they still did the job and got the win. They are back to being under-dogs this weekend against Leinster though and that will suit them just fine.

They've named a full strength team with Chris Henry, their main injury worry, named on the open-side flank alongside Stephen Ferris and Pedrie Wannenburg. After playing in all the backrow positions Henry seems to have finally settled on the openside and while he isn't a traditional light groundhog he is an intelligent and cunning player at the breakdown. He's made himself a key man and was instrumental in slowing down the ball against both Leicester and Munster, by fair means and foul.

Wannenburg is playing his last game for Ulster before moving to Castres in the summer and the popular South African will be looking to go out with a bang. Ferris, meanwhile, is simply Ulster's talisman, the player who makes things happen for them. He's been immense this season and was a touch unlucky to lose out to Rob Kearney for Irish player of the season, something that could be mentioned in passing if their paths cross on the pitch.

Johann Muller and Dan Touhy make up a formidable second row and they haven't been shy about declaring their intentions to go after the Leinster lineout which has had its share of problems lately. They'll be looking to take a cut at the Leinster scrum too with Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa, who's back after suspension, fancying themselves. Afoa has been arguably Ulster's most influential player this term and it's no coincidence that their season caught fire when he finally arrived from Auckland. He's a formidable scrummager but his impact in the loose, where he serves as another flanker in terms of work-rate and ball-carrying, is possibly even more important.

Close behind Afoa in terms of influence in scrum-half Ruan Pienaar. Almost like a French scrum-half, he runs the show and dictates the play more than the out-half. His goal-kicking is outstanding too, especially from long distance and Leinster will need to be extremely disciplined in all areas of the pitch. As in the semi-final Paddy Jackson gets the nod to play at ten. It's been a meteoric rise for a player who only six weeks ago was still seen as one for the future, not the present. But he's taken his chance well and offers a more solid defensive game than Ian Humphries. It will be interesting to see how much ball Pienaar gives him though, as he almost bypassed him entirely in the semi-final, particularly in the opposition twenty two.

Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave will be itching to show what they can do against the incumbent Irish midfield and Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy offer power and pace on the wings. Stefan Terrblanche brings massive experience at full back as well as pace and poise. As a starting fifteen there are few weaknesses and a hell of a lot of strengths. It's fair to say they haven't got the strength in depth of Leinster though and their biggest impact off the bench would be their half-backs Ian Humphries and Paul Marshall who are capable of changing the pace of the game if brought in.

For Leinster the big news concerns Brian O'Driscoll and after an injury scare, he's been named to start at outside centre. Fergus McFadden has been given the nod to replace the injured Luke Fitzgerald on the wing although he's named on the right side with Isa Nacewa moving over to the left. The only other change from the semi-final team sees Kevin McLaughlin recalled in place of Shane Jennings with Sean O'Brien moving over to openside. In the other tights calls, Richardt Strauss starts over Sean Cronin and in what must have been the most debated position Eoin Reddan starts at scrum-half ahead of Isaac Boss.

Of course this is the first ever All Ireland final, and at the home of English rugby. The dominance of Irish clubs in Europe, whatever happens it will be a fifth win in seven years for the Irish provinces, a prospect that would have been seen as laughable halfway through the last decade. The whinging from England and France has reached a crescendo, but funnily enough they didn't give a damn about how the Celts qualified when their clubs were dominating for the first twelve years of the tournament.

There is hope though for the Anglo-French clubs yet in the guise of the blazers at IRFU. By imposing a ludicrous and unworkable set of new guidelines for recruitment of foreign players, starting in 2014, they seem determined to fix something that isn't broken. Perhaps they're sick of being embarrassed by the success of the professionally run provinces, while the national team the amateurs run totters along in mediocrity. As Mayor 'Diamond' Joe Quimby famously said, when times are tough "Blame the Immigrants!!"

But let's enjoy the good times while they last and look forward to what should be a cracker of a final. The breakdown is going to be the key battle ground and Chris Henry will look to slow down Leinster's ball the way he did against Munster. That said, he didn't have Brad Thorn's borderline sadistic rucking to contend with that day, and if Henry does succeed in his task he will certainly be made to suffer for it. Ruan Pienaar will of course look to run the show for Ulster but if he can be harried and made to rush things, it can severely damage their playing patterns. Ulster have been talking up their scrum and this may well have gotten the Leinster front row backs up and they will be looking to give a response the way they did against Cardiff.

No matter what happens it's going to be a day for Irish rugby to be proud of. On paper Leinster are deserved favourites but anything can happen in an inter-pro. Leinster have the beating of Ulster, but know they're going to have to work their socks off once again. It's going to be tough but hopefully the greater strength of Leinster's bench will just sway a tight contest their way.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Ulster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Stefan Terblanche
Fergus McFadden
14 Andrew Trimble
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Darren Cave
Gordon D'Arcyy
12 Paddy Wallace
Isa Nacewa 11 Craig Gilroy
Jonathan Sexton
10 Paddy Jackson
Eoin Reddan
9 Ruan Pienaar

Cian Healy
1 Tom Court
Richardt Strauss
2 Rory Best
Mike Ross
3 John Afoa
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Johann Muller (C)
Brad Thorn 5 Dan Tuohy
Kevin McLaughlin
6 Stephen Ferris
Sean O'Brien 7 Chris Henry
Jamie Heaslip
8 Pedrie Wannenburg

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Nigel Brady
Heinke van der Merwe
17 Paddy McAllister
Nathan White
18 Declan Fitzpatrick
Devin Toner
19 Lewis Stevenson
Shane Jennings
20 Willie Faloon
Isaac Boss 21 Paul Marshall
Ian Madigan 22 Ian Humphreys
Dave Kearney
23 Adam D'Arcy

Not Considered
due to Injury
Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
John Cooney,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Eoin O'Malley

Jarred Payne,
Simon Danielli,
Tim Barker,
Chris Cochrane
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU),
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite, Jerome Garces (both FFR),
4th Official: Leighton Hodges (WRU),
5th Official: Neil Hennessy (WRU),
TMO: Jim Yuille (SRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-05-18