HEC Semi Final Preview: Ulster v Edinburgh

Two unfashionable outposts of European rugby lock horns for a place in the final that seemed unlikely at the start of the season.  But they’re here now, so let’s get on with it.

History: The two sides crossed paths, and traded wins, in the 2009/10 season. A late try by – who else? – Tim Visser won the tie 17-13 for Embra at Murrayfield, while Cave and Isaac Boss crossed the whitewash in the return leg. Neither side advanced to the knockouts.  In this season’s Pro12, Ulster have dished out two thrashings to Edinburgh, wrapping up  four-try bonus points in both legs.

Form: Edinburgh are the two-headed hydra of European rugby this season.  Abysmal in the Pro12, where they lie 11th and regularly roll over and allow their tummies to be tickled, they come to life in the Heineken Cup. Watchers of Connacht will recall Michael Bradley’s strategy of targeting particular games and dining out on fifty-burgers in others: well, he has taken that to the nth degree this season. WoC has always been dismissive of the argument that the English and French are stymied by being in more arduous leagues, partly because Munster and Leinster, the Pro12s traditional challengers in Europe, are competitive in the league and see it as a trophy worth winning.  But Edinburgh’s attitude does bring into question whether a more merit based qualification system is in order.  Their results since beating Toulouse are a 54-10 reverse at the RDS and a 38-13 beating by a pretty ordinary Cardiff Blues side, but little should be read into those scorelines; they weren’t trying a leg.

Ulster haven’t exactly killed themselves in the fortnight since beating Munster either.  Their seconds got beaten by Connacht, with Ian Humpreys putting in a distracted, lazy performance, and lost at home to Leinster with something more like their first team, but minus heavy hitters Tuohy, Best and Ferris.  But at least their losses were respectable.  It’ll be a different team which takes the field on Saturday.  Ulster’s strength in depth has come up just short in mounting a challenge in the Pro12, but they are a team transformed when Ferris and Best are in the side.

Gameplan: Edinburgh will want it loose, open and broken up.  They look to keep the ball alive and offload wherever possible.  Their two props offloaded more than any other forwards in the pool stages.  They’ve good carriers in their pack, with No.8 Netani Talei ably abetted by Ross Ford (no longer flattering to deceive) and David Denton, fresh off an impactful Six Nations.  Ross Rennie will look to rule the breakdown area.  In the half-back division, Mike Blair is still something of a headscratcher, and it puzzles WoC to this day how he went from brilliant to awful seemingly overnight some time around 2009.  The centres are average, but they’ve plenty of threat with Tim Visser out wide.  Give him some grass to run into and his big long arms are capable of some of the best hand-offs in the game.  Dude knows where the tryline is.

Ulster will want a more structured game, but they also play a brand of rugby that’s good to watch.  As discussed in the week, they look to their classy 9-10-12 axis to spread the ball wide and quickly, and get their strike runners into space.  A call has to be made at 10, where little iHumph is woefully out of form.  Paddy Jackson is inexperienced, but showed flashes of his talent against Leinster.  With Marshall probably missing, the option of moving Pienaar to 10 looks to be a non-starter.  McLoughlin’s a conservative fellow, and it would be a remarkable call if he threw young Jackson in for his first Heineken start in the semi-final.  Could it be a Johnny Sexton moment?  Elsewhere, Andrew Trimble is good at coming off his wing and looking for work (by work, we mean opportunites to bosh).  They’ve a tough, granite-hewn pack with Wannenbosh and Stephen Ferris expected to provide plenty of hard yards.  Best and Tuohy will be required to chip in.  Hard carries up the middle, spread it out wide.  Simple, and if accurate, pretty effective.

Prediction: It’s hard to see past Ulster.  It’s in Dublin, they’ve come here the hard way, and you can’t help but feel Embra got through a bit of a Group of Dearth.  We’re not expecting it to be easy, though.  For all the supposed experience of Ulster’s World Cup Winning South Africans, they didn’t show much composure down in Thomond Park – they really just gutsed it out.  This time the onus will be on them to play a bit more rugby.  They won’t have it all their own way, but they should be able to grind down an Edinburgh side that appears to lack the sort of grizzled leaders to win this game.  Grizzled leaders like Rory Best and Johann Muller.  Ulster by 7.

HEC Semi-Final Preview: Clermont v Leinster

It’s semi-final weekend and these are nervous times in Cordite Towers.  In order to remove the overrunning emotion from the occasion, bible-thumping Ulsterman Egg Chaser is going to brush the chip off his shoulder and preview Clermont v Leinster, while cappuccino-slurping D4TRESS-regular Palla Ovale will look at the Ulster v Edinburgh Big Match Special.

Clermont v Leinster

History: Lots of recent history. In the 2010 quarter-final, Leinster triumphed 29-28 in a memorable game in which Brock James missed 5 kicks and 2 drops at goal – Clermont did everything but win, and their fans would go down as one of the best (and the most naked) sets of away fans to visit D4.

In the following season’s group stages, they beat each other at home – a heroic away performance by Leinster set the tone for a dominant tournament, and their denying of a losing bonus point to Clermont put them in the driving position in the pool. Back in the day (2003), Leinster did the double over Montferrand.

Form: Both teams are on the top of their game, and, with due respect to Uster and Embra, would be likely finalists if they avoided each other at this stage.

At domestic level, Clermont are joint top of the Top 14 with Toulouse, miles clear of Toulon in third. They have the best defensive record in France, and have won every game at home – in fact they are unbeaten in 42 games at home. In Europe, they came through top of a tough pool which looks even tougher in retrospect. Leicester, who have 6 bonus point victories on the trot in England, could only finish 3rd; and fellow semi-finalists Ulster were runners-up. In the quarter-final, Saracens were ground into the dirt in an intimidating statement – putting to bed suspicions from some of the underpants brigade (©Farrelly Productions) that they lacked the mental.

Leinster have been opening cans of whoop-ass all over the Pro12 this season, despite resting most of their big players for the tournament. They have already secured top seeding for the playoffs and the home advantage throughout that that entails, and are hot favourites to take it home. This year’s HEC campaign has been a bit of a stroll, especially in comparison to last year, winning all 3 home games by half time and grinding out 2 wins and a draw away without having to hit top gear. In the quarter-final, a divided Cardiff side were eviscerated. Leinster are undefeated in their last 13 HEC games, dating back to last year’s loss in … Clermont.

Gameplan: Joe Schmidt would, uinder normal circumstances, start with Leinster ‘away’ team for a game like this, with McLaughlin, O’Brien and Boss included from the start, and Jennings and Reddan coming in to inject pace on the hour mark. However, its hard to see how rope-a-dope will work – Clermont are no Bath or Glasgow – so Leinster’s best chance probably comes from getting some pace into the game – Reddan is likely to start on Sunday.

The away template tends to consist of territory and playing it tight, but, again, giving Clermont the ball is not a strategy thats likely to succeed. Leinster will look to put pace on the ball, playing to their strengths. Expect the Leinster flankers to try and put some heat on Morgan Parra – if the matinee idol genius is ratty, Clermont tend not to be at their best. With some-guy-called-Brian (© G. Thornley) back and Schmidt’s knowledge of Clermont’s players, expect rock solid defence. Shane Jennings and Heinke van der Merwe will be the first substitutes on to the pitch, and Leinster will look to take advantage of any gaps opening up.

Clermont have a plan of terrible beauty and it’s oh so simple. Firstly, deny Leinster clean possession at scrum and ruck time with their gargantuan pack. They will want to see Reddan taking the ball going backwards and the Leinster fowards having to put in a huge amount of work to protect ball. Secondly, when they do have the ball, expect the creative inside backs to shift ball quickly to onrushing huge powerful backs (Rougerie, Sivivatu, Malzieu) and force Leinster to make big tackles. It’s a fearsome side and one that just pounds mercilessly until they get their reward. Cotter will shift in some powerful beasts after 50 minutes – Vincent Debaty was sensational against Ulster, turning the tide when it looked like Clermont were in a spot of bother, and the bench will be of top quality.  Look out for our new favourite bright young thing, Jean-Marcel Buttin.

Prediction: This one will be epic. Quinny said in the IT today that semi-finals can be grinding affairs, but we think that more applies to finals – there have been some memorable games at this stage: Munster-Leinster (twice), Leinster-Toulouse, Munster-Wasps, Leicester-Cardiff. However, this one is not going to be a try-fest, both teams will be content to have the last man standing.

When facing a baying crowd of Auvergnats (yes, we know its in Bordeaux, but don’t expect it to be anything but intimidating), the first 20 minutes are crucial – Leinster came flying out of the traps last year with an early Shaggy try, and Ulster bent but did not break in January. If you get past that, you have a chance. A small chance.

Clermont’s stated mission is to win this year’s Heineken Cup – this season, they have come through four games tougher than Leinster have faced (Ulster H & A, Leicester A, Saracens A) due to the champions’ somewhat powder-puff draw. Leinster had their quarter-final wrapped up inside half an hour, and proceeded to practice defence for most of the second half.  It’s not the greatest habit to get into.  If Leinster are not immediately at the intensity of the second half of last years semi-final, they won’t win, despite more experience at this heady level. Away to a gnarled set of huge and driven opponents, and with a creaking lineout, we have Leinster slightly odds-against.

They’ll ask plenty of questions of Clermont, and when the going gets tough they’ll hang in through pure muscle memory but they might come up just short – we’re going for Clermont by less than a score.