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RaboDirect PRO12 final preview: Ulster v Leinster

Updated: Saturday, 25 May 2013 16:36 | Comments

Leo Cullen and Johann Muller lead the sides at the RDS, kick-off 4.45
Leo Cullen and Johann Muller lead the sides at the RDS, kick-off 4.45

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By Tadhg Peavoy

Ulster v Leinster, RDS, 16.45pm 

In recent years, the RaboDirect PRO12 title has represented the one that got away for Leinster.

In the last two seasons, the Dublin-based team have reached the final on both occasions, only to fall at the final hurdle.

Live television coverage of Ulster v Leinster from 16:15 on Saturday 25 May on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Saturday Sport from 15:00 on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).

In the last two terms they have come into the PRO12 decider on the back of a Heineken Cup final and found a further game at the end of the season a stretch both physically and mentally.

The 2011 defeat to Munster in the showpiece event exemplified this best. Leinster were running on near empty and Munster beat them handily enough on a 19-9 scoreline at Thomond Park.

This year, with only an Amlin Challenge Cup final the weekend before, and several frontline players rested for that game, the notion is that Leinster will come into this clash with Ulster refreshed and far more potent than they have been for this game in the last two seasons.

Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Leo Cullen all return to the starting XV, and the impact of that crew should prove massive.

Admittedly, Sean O’Brien’s absence through injury is a factor, but McLaughlin and Jennings have both been going about their business in reliable, efficient and highly admirable ways this season; add them in alongside the in-form Jamie Heaslip, and that back row is something to fear.

Joe Schmidt’s team were at their very best as they demolished Stade Francais 34-13 at the RDS in the Amlin final; the free-running rugby his team is known for was there for all to see, and they looked like a team coming into peak form at just the right time of the season.

Jonathan Sexton, Ian Madigan and Rob Kearney looked especially sharp and one would back them to be at the centre of much of what Leinster do right this Saturday.

With all those returning Leinster players, and their good form added into the equation, Ulster will come into this one as underdogs, and to win they must relish that challenge.

They have a warrior of their own returning to the side in the form of All Blacks tight-head prop John Afoa, and his return alone will lift the spirits of Mark Anscombe’s men significantly.

The men of the north were also highly impressive in their last outing – the PRO12 semi-final win over Scarlets – and like Leinster are playing open, attractive rugby, married to a very aggressive rucking style; it’s working excellently at present.

While Leinster have the benefit of returning players, Ulster boast a very settled side, with Afoa’s inclusion in place of Declan Fitzpatrick the only change from the semis.

Their big guns – Tommy Bowe, Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller - are firing, and with that they have a chance.

The 2012 Heineken Cup final defeat for Ulster at the hands of Leinster showed exactly why the latter were superior that season: they were far more physical at the breakdown; moved the ball from the ruck far quicker; had a better line speed; and took on the ball with more pace and aggression.

But Ulster have closed the gap significantly this season, with their 22-18 victory in Dublin in March an indicator that they have finally managed to gain an understanding of how to withstand Leinster’s creative onslaught and strike back with their own brand of attack.

The oft repeated mantra in sport is that one has to play one’s own game, and not worry about what the opposition has in store; and while this is partly true in this match-up, the truth is that Ulster have to cancel out some of Leinster’s abilities to give their own strengths a fighting chance.

With Afoa back, Ulster won’t be bullied at scrum time and are arguably the stronger pack at that set piece; already this is a huge platform for the team to work off.

If they back the scrum up with a solid lineout, then they will have enough possession to damage Leinster.

"With Afoa back, Ulster won’t be bullied at scrum time"

Rory Best is the key here; his absence from the Lions squad was one of the big end-of-season talking points, and this is his chance to prove Warren Gatland wrong for omitting him from his 37-man squad.

Best’s wayward throwing is likely the main reason he isn’t making the trip Down Under and he must get his darts right if Ulster are to win this trophy.

Leinster’s rucking and ability to get the ball to their backs is key to the game. Ulster must get into Leinster early on, hitting rucks like maniacs attempting to disrupt Leinster’s platforms and therefore diminishing their rhythm and confidence early in the tie.

Schmidt’s team are brilliant in the loose and Anscombe’s charges must be up in the tackle as quickly as possible to hit them back before momentum is achieved; man-and-ball choke tackles are needed in order to prevent offloads to Madigan, Sexton and Jamie Heaslip among others.

These players thrive off broken play and Ulster can’t allow them that or they will perish in the field of battle.

If Ulster can prevent Leinster’s patterns taking hold, then they can use tight forward-attacks and careful recycling to edge their way up the pitch where Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Nick Williams can be used as strike runners to punch holes in the Leinster defence, targeting smaller players to create mismatches.

Add in Pienaar’s tactical and goal-kicking and Ulster have a game plan that can win the tie in Dublin.

But it’s going to be very challenging for Ulster.

Not only are Leinster fresh, they are inspired by their Amlin Challenge Cup win, and are also playing at home, in what should be perfect conditions for their brand of running rugby: it’s forecast to be 16 degrees and sunny in Dublin on Saturday evening.

The mental block Ulster had about winning in Dublin is over. That win last March was their first in the Republic’s capital since 1999, and it must have been a huge monkey off their collective back psychologically.

Now, the challenge is to repeat that performance and show they have even more in the tank - enough gas to win a title.

Leinster should have too many ideas for Ulster, but either way it promises to be a fine spectacle of rugby.

Verdict: Leinster to win by six.

Ulster v Leinster, RaboDirect PRO12 final, Saturday 25 May at the RDS, kick-off 16:45:

Ulster: 15 Jared Payne 14 Andrew Trimble 13 Darren Cave 12 Stuart Olding 11 Tommy Bowe 10 Paddy Jackson 9 Ruan Pienaar 1 Tom Court 2 Rory Best 3 John Afoa 4 Johann Muller (c) 5 Dan Tuohy 6 Robbie Diack 7 Chris Henry 8 Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16 Rob Herring 17 Callum Black 18 Declan Fitzpatrick 19 Iain Henderson 20 Mike McComish 21 Paul Marshall 22 Mike Allen 23 Peter Nelson.

Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney 14 Fergus McFadden 13 Brian O’Driscoll 12 Ian Madigan 11 Isa Nacewa 10 Jonathan Sexton 9 Isaac Boss 1 Cian Healy 2 Richardt Strauss 3 Mike Ross 4 Leo Cullen (c) 5 Devin Toner 6 Kevin McLaughlin 7 Shane Jennings 8 Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 Jack McGrath 18 Jamie Hagan 19 Quinn Roux 20 Rhys Ruddock 21 John Cooney 22 Andrew Goodman 23 Andrew Conway.

LIVE: RABODIRECT PRO12

Live television coverage of Ulster v Leinster from 16:15 on Saturday 25 May on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Saturday Sport from 15:00 on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).

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