Heineken Cup Final: Ulster

After cappuccino-slurping, Irish Times-perusing, 46A-travelling, Dundrum-shopping, Fallon & Byrne-frequenting, field-fearing Leinsterman Palla’s look at his team yesterday, I’ll be giving the proud Ulstermen some analysis today – SUFTUM etc.

We’re going to have a roundtable discussion tomorrow and give our forecasts – let’s hope it doesn’t come to fisticuffs.  We’ll keep you posted…

Who’s going to play:

Unlike Leinster, who can expect up to 12 of the team that played in their last Heineken Cup final, Ulster won’t be calling on any of the 1999 side, not even Gary Longwell. Also unlike Leinster, there isn’t much competition for places – the XV is pretty much set in stone: Terblanche; Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Gilroy; Jackson, Pienaar; Court, Best, Afoa; Muller, Tuohy; Ferris, Henry, Wannenbosh. Lots of Ooooooooooooohhh there (of which more anon).

On the bench, there is a chance Iain Henderson will get the reserve lock slot from Louis Stevenson (but it’s unlikely), so that is pretty much set in stone as well. McLaughlin hasn’t been one for changes in the big games, but with the probability Ulster will be chasing it in the last 20, you can expect Paul Marshall to come in for Paddy Jackson with Pienaar moving out; but that’s it unless there are injuries – the bench is low on experience and, in some of the more established players’ cases (Willie Faloon, Nigel Brady, the outside backs) HEC standard class.

What’s the plan:

Keep it tight. As tight as a duck’s butt. Like the proverbial Shannon quote (“if we ever find a number 8 who can kick…”), the lower the digits on the shirt of the players with the ball, the better for Ulster. Ulster will fancy their set piece is superior to Leinster’s, and will look for the template they employed in the Marcel Michelin – grind, bosh, boot and Bok.

They will aim to play territory, looking to kick for touch when they give the piano players the ball, and hope their superior lineout can get disrupt Leinster throws in their own 22. The good thing about this is they have four good tactical kickers (Pienaar, Jackson, Wallace, Terblanche) to execute the plan. The bad thing is their execution against Embra was poor, and Leinster have the best kick-returners in the business (Bob, Nacewa, Sexton) – a repeat of the first half showing in the semi-final and they’ll be going in 20 points down.

To win, they must:

Not deviate from the gameplan, and execute everything with absolute precision. They need to get their set pieces on top. The Ulster lineout is undoubtedly better than Leinster’s, their scrum will break even at least (but beware of the intelligent Leinster props turning a perceived advantage on its head). Assuming Kevin McLaughlin plays to shore up the creaky Leinster lineout, Ulster will have the best breakdown merchant and back frustrater on the pitch in Chris Henry.

Ulster will have been watching the Leinster-Clermont game and noted how Ulster’s performance away to Clermont was arguably better in the set pieces – they will think they can turn the screw on Leinster just as Clermont did in the second quarter, and as they did against Edinburgh in the third quarter.

When Leinster have their inevitable purple patch, Ulster must defend with discipline and intelligence – the boys in blue can score tries against anyone from anywhere – the likes of Wallace, Henry and Cave need to be alert for inside runners and their tackling technique needs to be bang on to take offloads out of the question – if the Ulster backrow are prominent, Leinster should be worried. The Springbok model of defending and hitting hard is the Ulster one – make the scores come in multiples of 3.

They’ll be snookered if:

They put a foot wrong! Any errant kicks will be punished, and punished severely – with respect to the Embra backs, they have nothing on these guys. Looking at Leinster’s results away from D4 this year, one try has generally been enough – if Leinster break through at all, you’d have to fancy Ulster’s chances are small. So don’t concede any tries.

If the scrum does not get on top, Ulster should be worried – Afoa and co need to put pressure on the Leinster fatties to take the ref out of the equation. In their knock-out games to date, they have had the luxury of Poite i.e. if you are on top, you get the penalty.  With Owens, unless it’s clear cut (and even when it is), the scrum penalties are a bit more of a lottery.

And finally, they must be ready for an onslaught in the final quarter. Ulster need to lead from the front, and Leinster might be quite happy to work the tacklers in the first half and go in, say, 6-9 down, with a view to pushing on like they did in Clermont, and bringing on their impact subs. Ulster will have much of the same XV on the field to the end, and they need to be mentally ready for the last 20 if they are to cling on.

Heineken Cup Final: Leinster

There’s a whiff of cordite in the air alright.  Oh yes.  Deep and pungent.  As tension builds in Heineken Cup final week, we’re barely on speaking terms.  Egg Chaser has started calling Palla Ovale a ‘D4-dwelling lady-man’ (surely he means ‘ladies’ man’?), while Palla hilariously, and not at all childishly, has resorted to putting Egg’s favourite bible inside a jelly mould.  Things reached a low when Palla said he never rated Paddy Wallace anyway.

In the semi-finals we elected to put emotion on the back-burner and have the Leinster man preview the Ulster game and vice versa, but that’s impossible this time (mainly because Egg’s first draft of his Leinster preview just had ‘Leinster are rubbish and Jamie Heaslip is a show-boating pansy’ repeated ad nauseum).

Onwards and upwards though, so, first, let’s have a look at Leinster.

Who’s going to play?

So poor is our track record of trying to forecast Joe Schmidt’s team selections that it’s almost laughable that we’re going to try again, but here goes.  As usual, the hard calls are in the front row, the backrow, and at scrum half.  With Luke Fitzgerald out there’s another in the back three.  We’re working off the assumption that all of those managing niggly injuries will show sufficient healing powers to make the cut.  Cian Healy should get the nod at loosehead, as he usually does in knockout games.  Expect him to waste himself for 55 minutes and the granite-hewn van der Merwe to be one of the first two reserves to enter the fray.  Wihle Richardt Strauss has not quite hit the heights of last season, he looks likely to hold off the challenge of Sean Cronin.  Cronin’s timing onto pop passes around the fringes is terrific, but his throwing is still woefully erratic (more of which later).  Mike Ross, Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn will fill out the tight five.

In the backrow, O’Brien and Heaslip are nailed on, but who is chosen to join them infers a lot about how Leinster intend to play.  In the semi-final Jennings was selected for his niggly scrum-half-harrying qualities.  We’re expecting a switch in the final, with McLaughlin to start.  Leinster’s lineout has creaked of late and Locky provides a superb tail-jumping option which will be needed against a lineout which is one of the best in the competition.

Fergus McFadden is long overdue some good news at selection time.

The other call which reveals much about Leinster’s gameplan is at scrum-half.  We’ve a sneaky feeling Isaac Boss might just get the start, but then we said Reddan would wear 9 in the semi-final.  Boss knows this Ulster team pretty well and Schmidt might like the idea of Reddan increasing the tempo in the final quarter.  One will start, the other finish.  Sexton, D’arcy and BOD in midfield, and Nacewa and Kearney Sr will certainly start in the back three.  The final outside back will surely be Fergus McFadden, seeing off the challenge of the greater broken-field threat of Dave Kearney, due to his sturdier defence.  The versatile back has had a career of selectorial disappointments, and it will be a satisfying moment for him to be selected in a final.

What’s the plan? 

Johnny Sexton is the most influential player in the competition

Leinster can play it myriad ways, as the above paragraphs will tell you.  But the principles generally remain the same: manic aggression and correct body height at the ruck, accurate passing with the ball.  Leinster are lords of the breakdown in Europe, and the addition of Brad Thorn hasn’t done them much harm in that regard.  Jamie Heaslip hasn’t had the best of seasons, but criticism should be tempered, because he is sensational in his work on the ground.  Once they secure quick ball it’s Sexton who dictates the play.  His form this season and last in the competition are matchless.

What they need to do to win:

Leinster are a better team than Ulster, and generally beat them home and away in the Pro12.  They need to relax, be patient and play their natural game.  Get the ball quickly away from the ruck, get Sexton involved, and treat the ball with care.  If they can play at a high tempo and the accuracy to which we have become accustomed, they will have too much in their arsenal for Ulster.  Breathe deep.  Relax.  Play.

They’ll be snookered if:

…their set piece work is shoddy.  Ulster relied on their set piece and some hard grunt up front to overcome Edinburgh.  They don’t appear to have a huge desire to play an awful lot of rugby, but they can grind you down in the tight exchanges.  Leinster’s lineout is a concern in this regard and Leo Cullen will no doubt be at his most nerdish this week, pouring through hours of tape and devising a plan.  With John Afoa returning at tighthead, Ulster look to have an advantage in the scrum.  Ross and Healy are capable of off-days and were outmuscled on their recent visit to Ravers.  If Ulster get an upper hand in the scrums, they can kick points from anywhwere and work the scoreboard impressively.  It won them a semi-final.