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Ulster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby,
RaboDirect Pro12 Grand Final,
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Staurday, 25th May 2013, 16:45

Television: TG4, RTE2, BBC2 NI, BBC2 Wales, BBC Alba

This is it.

No excuses, no ifs and buts.

Leinster simply HAVE to win this game tomorrow.

Why?

There are many reasons, but let me give you three.

Firstly, our whole season depends on it. Leinster set out to win three trophies at the start of the season, the Heineken Cup, the Pro12 and the British and Irish Cup. The A's did brilliantly to beat Newcastle away last Friday to win the British and Irish Cup for the first time. However as much as Leinster operate as one big squad, that's really a win for the academy and fringe players. For the seniors, it's about the "HC" and the league. The HC was gone back in January and though Leinster performed with honour to win the Amlin Cup, thrashing lower table French and English clubs (by an average margin of 23 points) is not the sort of competition they should ever be satisfied with winning. So in real rugby terms, the success of our season stands and falls on what happens tomorrow in the Grand Final.

Secondly, there's Leinster's lamentable record in the Grand finals. Since the play-off system was brought in, Leinster have played in all three finals and lost the lot. In 2011, they lost away to Munster, who had topped the league and were deserving champions so it didn't sting as bad. However in 2010 and 2012 Leinster topped the league and hosted the Ospreys at the RDS and both times the Welsh displayed dreadful manners by spoiling the party and winning! Since the exit from the HC, the priority has been the league as we saw last week when Brian O'Driscoll wasn't risked and Leo Cullen, Richardt Strauss and Cian Healy were left on the bench. This season, this is the big match!

Finally, there are the goodbyes! Leinster nearly always screw up our goodbyes. In recent years Michael Cheika, Malcolm O'Kelly, Nathan Hines, Stan Wright, Girvan Dempsey amongst others have all left on a back of a defeat. On the playing side we're saying goodbye to Isa Nacewa, Jonny Sexton, Heinke van der Merwe and others. Even more importantly we can't send our head coach Joe Schmidt off to the Ireland job with a record of three straight Grand Final defeats. Joe has had such an incredible impact on Leinster, it seems he's been here much longer than just three years. It's not just the success either, it's the manner in which he's carried himself. He's created a template for how to succeed with class and dignity that anyone in professional sport should seek to follow, player or coach.

We simply can't let him end his time with Leinster on a defeat can we?

"Yes you bloody well can!!" is the reply from our Northern cousins two hours up the M1.

Because as much as we HAVE to win, Ulster will argue that they simply HAVE to win too, even more so in fact.

Why? Well here are their three reasons.

First off, there's good old revenge!!!! They still want payback for last season's Heineken Cup final hammering when Leinster beat them 42-14 in Twickenham. In truth, it was tougher for Leinster than that score suggests but Ulster still took a spanking with the whole rugby world watching and it hurt their pride. Yes, they've gained some recompense by winning twice this season and deservedly so. However Ulster know more than most, it's the big games that are remembered and if they fall to Leinster again, the regular seasons wins will be downgraded in importance.

Secondly Ulster have to show they're making progress as a team and a club and the only real measure of that is silverware. What's more, if they don't win tomorrow, it will feel awfully anti-climactic in a season that promised so much at one stage. They were rampant in both competitions up until a sloppy home defeat against Northampton put a crimp in their step. That meant an away trip to Saracens where they put their most disappointing performance of the season in losing. Saracens were well-organised and aggressive and nothing more than that but Ulster never even tested them and they will be hugely motivated to make it up to the massive travelling support that left Twickenham disappointed for the second time in a row.

Lastly, there's the Nevin Spence factor. Their season had barely begun when that horrendous farming accident took three members of the Spence family. An already close squad was bonded together even further by the tragedy and though they will have to divorce themselves from emotion during the game, they will certainly derive inspiration from it. No doubt the Ulster team and fans will remember and appreciate how Leinster stood side by side with them at that dreadful time. The entire Leinster squad made the trip up to Belfast for his memorial and the Leinster fans sung "Stand Up for the Ulster men" after the minutes silence in the RDS as a poignant tribute. However, once that whistle goes, all that will go out the window and rightly so. It will be a full on battle from the first minute to the last.

So we have two teams desperate to win, but who shall prevail?

Ulster have certainly improved as a team this season with the addition of Tommy Bowe, Nick Williams and Jared Payne (who missed almost the entirety of last season). The likes of Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson and Luke Marshall have matured into players of real International quality and their totems like Johann Muller, Andrew Trimble, Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa are as strong as ever.

After a long unbeaten run in the league at the start of the season they hit a bad patch during the Six Nations when they only won one in five. Leinster put themselves in position to snatch first place from them, a prospect that was scarcely credible back in January. But then Ulster effectively won first place back by winning in the RDS in March. It was their first win in Dublin in 14 years and if the win was a shock, the manner of it was even more so. They simply beat Leinster at their own game, passing and running superbly to outscore them two tries to nil. Then they hung on and tackled ferociously and tried every trick in the book at the breakdown to hold onto their lead. Again, all very Leinster.

Leinster could have snatched it at the death in a frenzied finale but they wouldn't have deserved it. It remains their only defeat in 2013 and if they are to win on Saturday, they must learn the lessons from that game. Defensively they were way too passive, drifting far too much and letting Ulster get into their stride to get their big backs running. Paddy Jackson must have felt he was in dreamland, often running twenty metres before a defender even got close to him. Leinster's defence has been a problem all season, with 59 tries conceded in all competitions, over 50% more than at this stage last season. Unfortunately the defensive effort was poor again in the close win against Glasgow with 25 tackles missed. Both the defensive organisation and the standard of tackling need to improve dramatically for Leinster to win tomorrow.

Leinster will also need to work a lot better at the breakdown. Chris Henry has been converted into a really intelligent spoiler of an openside and he'll destroy any quick ball he can. Leinster have to go back to last season's HC final and remind themselves how Brad Thorn dealt with him and produce more of the same. Leinster's biggest Achilles heel all season has been their line-out. They've rarely been decimated but they've lost crucial lineouts at important times in the game far too often this season. Ulster have also had their problems there too and their hooker Rory Best cost himself what looked a certain Lions spot with his throwing problems. The problems with Ulster and Ireland aren't all his fault, but he can't be completely excused of blame either. Leinster, and Devin Toner especially, need to go after his throw in a big way.

The Ulster team has been named and the big news is that John Afoa starts at tighthead prop after recovering from a hamstring problem. He takes his place alongside Best and Tom Court who has been seriously fired up when playing Leinster this season. They will go after the Leinster scrum again in a big way but the Leinster front row heard this last season before the Heineken Cup final and actually ended up dominating the Northerners.

Johann Muller captains the team from the second row alongside Dan Touhy, who brings real aggression and great skill in contact. The Pro12 Player of the season, Nick Williams, is named at number eight and much will depend on his relentless ability to generate go-forward ball. Like Williams, Robbie Diack has been a player reborn under coach Mark Anscombe and he edges out Henderson for the blindside spot. The last member of the backrow, Chris Henry, doesn't get as many plaudits, but Ulster never play as good when he's not there.

In the backline, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson are the half-backs and as usual Pienaar will be the one calling the shots. Jackson will be reminded of his early exit from the final at Twickenham last season and will be determined to show how much he's improved since then. The injuries to Luke Marshall and Paddy Wallace haven't hurt Ulster too much because of Stuart Olding, who's been a revelation in the second half of the season alongside the always dependable Darren Cave. Even with Craig Gilroy missing, they can still send out an outstanding back three in Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe. There's no doubt it's an excellent first fifteen but injuries mean that, save for Henderson and Paul Marshall, they're not as strong on the bench as they'd like to be. If the game is tight going into the last quarter, that could well be a factor.

For Leinster Jonny Sexton starts at ten, playing his last game for Leinster before heading to Paris and he's been playing like a man possessed for the last few weeks since returning from injury. He's clearly determined to give the fans another cup to celebrate but from a fan's perspective, we've been watching with a tinge of sadness. A player we've raised from a pup to become the premier out-half in the Northern Hemisphere is off to spend his peak years in France. It wouldn't be so bad if he had actually wanted to go, but he didn't want to leave. However he also wasn't prepared to be browbeaten by the misers at the IRFU who thought lowballing the most coveted number 10 in Europe was a smart negotiating tactic. So thanks Jonny and good luck in France, but hopefully we'll see you wearing the blue another day in the future.

One player we definitely won't see in blue again is Isa Nacewa. This will definitely be Isa's last game in a Leinster jersey and, more than likely, his last game as a professional player too. Leinster have had lots of great foreign players down the years like Stan Wright, Ollie le Roux, Brad Thorn and Rocky Elsom, but perhaps only Felipe Contepomi can rival Isa for the way the RDS crowd took him to their heart. Though he tentatively joined as an out-half, he really made his name as a top class back three player with too many moments of brilliance in both attack and defence to mention. He very quickly won the squad and the fans over with his supreme professionalism both on and off the pitch. He was brilliant on the big days but was perhaps even more valuable on the less high profile occasions when young, inexperienced players took the field feeling a foot taller because they were playing with Isa. His impact on the pitch was immense but the legacy he'll leave all our young players will be showing them how to act as a player and as a person with class and dignity. When the final "Isa! Isa! Isa!" chants ring out at the RDS tomorrow evening, there won't be a dry eye in the house, at least not from those in blue.

But let's park the emotion for now, Isa will want to go out a winner and he lines up in a potent back three with Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden, who has recovered from the neck injury which ended his game early last week. McFadden moves from centre to replace Andrew Conway to allow the return of Brian O'Driscoll who has recovered from the back injury which meant he wasn't risked last week. He partners Ian Madigan, who had his best game as a centre last week, combining superbly with Sexton who partners Isaac Boss at half back, another player in top form.

After a pretty farcical week of injury updates and counter injury updates from the Lions and Leinster squads, no one will be really surprised by the news that Sean O'Brien's knee injury rules him out. It means that Shane Jennings will play at openside with Kevin McLaughlin at blindside in place of Rhys Ruddock. Losing a player of Seanie's quality is always a blow but there is some comfort in having Jennings there to counter the excellent Henry at the breakdown. Jamie Heaslip will be required to take on more ball-carrying but judging by his recent form, that suits him just fine. In the second row Leo Cullen returns to the starting line-up in place of Quinn Roux and he also reclaims the captaincy. In the front row Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss return to the starting line-up in place of Jack McGrath and Sean Cronin who'll be looking to make it four tries in four finals when he gets on. Mike Ross completes the line-up and he'll be hoping to get on better with referee John Lacey than he did with George Clancy.

Of course Ulster are technically the "home" team even though the match is being played in Leinster's home ground. Leinster fans have really taken to the RDS and most of the regulars have a seat or a spot on the terrace that they consider their own. It will be a decidedly odd feeling to arrive and find the place half full of Ulster fans. Leinster fans will need to be cool and remember that technically, we're their guests for the day! The 50/50 split on the tickets should ensure one of the noisiest atmospheres seen in the RDS for years and with a nice sunny day forecast, it should be a hell of a final for the second year running. This time, let's hope that it's Leinster who come out the right side of it though.

When it comes down to it, Leinster have spent the last three off-seasons wondering what might have been in the last game of the season. It will be incredibly tough to beat an excellent Ulster team and it will require Leinster's best performance of the season to do it, but hopefully the thought of another summer of regrets will give them that push over the edge.

Ulster will take great confidence from the two wins earlier in the season but Leinster didn't have Brian O'Driscoll or Jonny Sexton playing in either game. If ever two players can make a difference for Leinster, these two can.

Let's hope they inspire Leinster to their first Grand Final win!

Team Lineups

Ulster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Jared Payne 15 Rob Kearney
Andrew Trimble 14 Fergus McFadden
Darren Cave 13 Brian O'Driscoll
Stuart Olding
12 Ian Madigan
Tommy Bowe 11 Isa Nacewa
Paddy Jackson 10 Jonathan Sexton
Ruan Pienaar 9 Isaac Boss

Tom Court 1 Cian Healy
Rory Best 2 Richardt Strauss
John Afoa 3 Mike Ross
Johann Muller (C)
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Dan Touhy
5 Devin Toner
Robbie Diack 6 Kevin McLaughlin
Chris Henry
7 Shane Jennings
Nick Williams 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Rob Herring 16 Sean Cronin
Callum Black 17 Jack McGrath
Declan Fitzpatrick
18 Jamie Hagan
Iain Henderson
19 Quinn Roux
Mike McComish
20 Rhys Ruddock
Paul Marshall 21 John Cooney
Michael Allen
22 Andrew Goodman
Peter Nelson
23 Andrew Conway

Not Considered
due to Injury
Stephen Ferris,
Paddy Wallace,
Paddy McAllister,
Adam Macklin,
Chris Farrell,
Craig Gilroy,
Luke Marshall,
Roger Wilson,
Adam D'Arcy

Jack Conan,
David Doyle,
Tadgh Furlong,
Darren Hudson,
Damien Browne,
Eoin Reddan,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Eoin O'Malley,
Heinke van der Merwe,
Ben Marshall,
Tom Denton,
Gordon D'Arcy,
Sean O'Brien
Officials Referee: George John Lacey (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: George Clancy, Peter Fitzgibbon (both IRFU),
4th & 5th Officials: Leo Colgan, Olly Hodges (both IRFU),
TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-05-25

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