by Frank Quinn
Leinster have qualified for the finals of the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirectPro12 for the second year in succession, in the current betting they start as mighty firm favourites for both at 1/4 and 4/11 respectively against Ulster and Ospreys in these competitions.
Favouritism can be justified as the Holders of the Heineken Cup, third final in four years and looking for only the second two in a row in this competition. They had a gruelling semi-final in the Rabo against a Glasgow Warriors team that fought to the end just a week before the Heineken Final. After the game Joe Schmidt gave the press corps a throwaway line “I hope Ulster was not watching”!
Leinster were “short” four players – Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney through injuries, Leo Cullen – came on as replacement and Isaac Boss, without pre empting Joe Schmidt’s selection to play Ulster in the final. What of the tactics for Leinster – play the Leinster way – attack out wide with the full force of the highly skilled backs where Rob Kearney is at his very best at full back and then defend like they did against Clermont in Bordeaux. They do need the skills of O’Driscoll and he is on schedule to play a big part in Thursday’s training to tune up and start.
Ulster on the other hand, had a nice training trip to Portugal and two weeks off to be fit, get a game plan together, be well trained and most important – a fresh team for the big day. I put a high emphasis on the fresh bit as I think it really counts for something in an end of season final.
I was very impressed by the way they handled Munster, I was reminded by the Jack Charlton’s Irish soccer team tactics – they sat on everyone, snapped at heels, played it tight, held on to jerseys and legs and all the other methods that are used to upset the rhythm of the opposition. This intensity resulted in Munster giving away kickable penalties and Ulster took full advantage.
Ulster did it well and the old dictat of not giving away penalties in your own half of the field was blown away by Ruan Pienaar’s successful penalty kicking ability from plus 50 meters.
Based on the Leinster performance in the Rabo semi-final I now give Ulster a better chance than I did last week, long tough games and injuries are going to tell on Schmidt’s men.
However they have a strong squad to improvise and make up for injuries sustained to a number of players, the obvious one in doubt is Brian O’Driscoll and no team can do without him. The player of the moment Robert Kearney should come through as the news on him is more encouraging. They should be able to justify the short odds placed on them by the bookmakers and come through with a very tight margin, either way Ireland will have won six of the seventeen Heineken Cup competitions.
The RaboDirectPro12 final.
Ospreys will lie in wait in the long grass for whichever Leinster team turns up eight days after the Twickenham final. I give Ospreys a serious chance in the final, it is the last chance saloon for them to snatch some silverware and they have done it before.
They too, like Ulster have a two week (16 days) build up to have a go at the favourites Leinster, and they will have watched the videos of the Glasgow and Ulster games. In addition Ospreys will have gained in confidence from the demolition of Munster, always a big deal, in the semi final in Tony McGahan’s last game in charge. They won it well taking their chances and scoring five tries ably led by Captain Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Bigger’s kicking was superb. It was possibly Munster’s worst defeat (45-10) in the European and Celtic leagues.
For McGahan it must have felt like getting knocked out in your last fight as he says farewell to the Reds and heads off into the Australian sunset for a stint with his own national team as assistant coach and I wish him well.
Leinster if they win the Heineken will have been through all this before in 2011 – that time they were mugged by Munster in Thomond Park. They will have learned from this and the final will be played on their home ground at the RDS in Dublin 4 eight days after the Twickenham Final.
The only advice for Joe Schmidt is to rotate his squad, all of his crew will want to play in both finals but prudence dictates that he start with all of his replacements from the Heineken final and hold the starters in readiness for the sixty minute switch. That way everyone is happy and if they win it would be a Cup double befitting a well drilled, talented and entertaining squad of players and management.