Heineken Cup preview

When looking at the four teams that remain in this year’s Heineken Cup, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the clash in Bordeaux is essentially the “final”, in fact the coverage around the different types of media has reflected that view.

That would be extremely unfair on both Ulster and Edinburgh however, as between them they have knocked out teams who have won half of the trophies on offer to date (Leicester, Munster & Toulouse).

But I have a feeling that neither Brian McLaughlin nor Michael Bradley will mind flying under the radar of media scrutiny this week as it means they can get on with the task at hand, and no doubt both will feel their side is capable of reaching the final when they meet each other in the Aviva on Saturday evening.

Tournament semi-finals are of course something of a novelty for Edinburgh, but once you’re there, of course you may as well do all you can to go further. They will definitely be looking to their back row of Denton, Rennie and Talei to get in amongst the breakdown as they did against Toulouse.

Should the Scots create any space out wide, they certainly have wingers who can finish in Lee Jones and particularly Tim Visser. Also in Greig Laidlaw they have a kicker who proved in the quarterfinal he can place-kick under pressure so the Aviva Stadium should be no bother to him when called upon.

On the Ulster side of things they have made what many feel is a brave move, naming the young Paddy Jackson at out-half ahead of Ian Humphreys. However I feel this is the right call as the Irish Under-20 skipper showed some really good touches against Leinster last Friday, albeit in a losing cause.

In their pack you can’t help but miss names like John Afoa and Chris Henry but then again welcoming Dan Tuohy, skipper Rory Best and of course Stephen Ferris will be a massive boost to them.

From a tactical point of view, the only thing that could hold Ulster back will be the fact that they are favourites. Few would have blamed them for not coming out of a pool that included Clermont & Leicester…even fewer would have done so had they lost at Thomond Park in the quarters. This time, they are heavy favourites.

Edinburgh will no doubt do all they can to exert pressure on them and I can see Greig Laidlaw kicking out of hand more often than not to get the edge in the territory department. They may also seek to disrupt the scrums as much as they can, watch for Allan Jacobsen to get at his opposite prop Declan Fitzpatrick from the very start.
Saturday’s winners in the Aviva Stadium will be able to put their feet up on Sunday and watch the continent’s two most successful teams this season go at it. In many ways, this is a match-up that has everything.

Look at it from whichever angle you want…both clubs have also qualified for the playoffs in their domestic league, Clermont, although technically the home side on Sunday, have been perfect at the Stade Marcel-Michelin this season while Leinster haven’t lost on their travels since an opening day reversal in Swansea, and then there’s the whole “servant v master” sub-plot as Joe Schmidt faces his former boss Vern Cotter for a third time since taking the reins at the RDS.

But looking down the two team sheets it’s clear this contest deserves equal billing to any top-tier test match. On the injury front it is Clermont who are hurting the most…out-half David Skrela was ruled out during the week but I reckon its inspirational flanker Gerhard Vosloo that they will be missing more.

Still, it is quite the starting line-up they have with three starters from the 2011 World Cup final in Rougerie, Parra & Bonnaire plus Wesley Fofana who scored some impressive tries in this year’s Six Nations.

Brock James plays at 10 instead of Skrela – most Leinster fans will remember his dreadful performance from the kicking tee at the RDS in 2010. His stats aren’t much better this season in that he’s kicking at around 72% but I can only presume Morgan Parra will be doing the honours and James’ role will be to get the ball quickly to their strong centre pairing.

Of course you can’t help but notice the name “Nathan Hines” on the Clermont team sheet, he who scored Leinster’ s final try in their triumph over Northampton last May. You can be sure there will be no sentiment on his part as he is a model professional, although the same could be said of the New Zealand lock Leinster got in to replace him!

Joe Schmidt on the other hand has pretty much a full deck to choose from, and has made an eyebrow-raising decision or two of his own. When he feels he needs more ability in the lineout, he generally goes with Kevin McLaughlin at 6 as he did against Cardiff, but for this contest he has Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip all in their more customary scrum positions, no doubt hoping to make maximum hay from the absence of Vosloo.

In the backs, the biggest call has been that of Isaac Boss over Eoin Reddan. Not sure if this was so much as a result of form – the two are evenly matched over all so it’s a tight call at any time. But in the Heineken Cup this season Schmidt has tended to plump for Reddan so no doubt this will come as something of a surprise to Cotter who could have been counting on Reddan to link up with Sexton more often than not. With Boss on the pitch there is always the possibility of a fake and charge at the fringes which will definitely keep Parra & James honest throughout.
Scrum time should also be interesting throughout – referee Wayne Barnes has had his critics throughout the season and will be severely tested on the day to make the right decisions. Also a look at the two sides would seem to suggest Leinster have the slightly stronger bench particularly in the key area of the front row – Connacht-bound Nathan White’s match-fitness could prove to be crucial in the closing stages.

You may notice I haven’t even mentioned names like Kearney, Nacewa & O’Driscoll…you never know, they may be called upon as well! But with such quality on both sides it could be in other areas where the day is won.

When it comes to tactics, Leinster have demonstrated in this competition this season that they have a certain “mode” they can click into when required – the only times they really struggled were in the first half in both Montpellier and Bath, but still they have shown themselves to be most dangerous when just scored upon, often marching straight down the field thanks to pinpoint Sexton restarts to claw points back.

What Clermont need to do is simple; literally from the very kick off they must get in amongst their opposition and do everything they can to knock them off their game. How Leinster stand up to the “home” side’s advances in the first quarter should go a long way to determining which way this game is going to go.

And so it’s time to stick my head out and say who will come out on top. This is not a time to be superstitious. It’s a time to be honest. I firmly believe we will have the Heineken Cup’s first-ever all-Irish final and I’m not afraid to say it. Ulster should prove too strong for Edinburgh over 80 minutes and may even pull away in the final quarter while Leinster’s bench strength should give them the defensive resolve to see out what will probably be an all-out Clermont assault in the final quarter.

Should these predictions pan out it will be excellent news for Connacht supporters, as it will guarantee them their second campaign in this great tournament. Here’s hoping I’m right!

We must not forget the other Irish province in action this weekend – as a reward for their impressive extra-time victory over their Leinster counterparts at the RDS, Munster A get to host this year’s British & Irish Cup final tonight as they welcome Welsh Principality Premiership outfit Cross Keys RFC to Musgrave Park.

The visitors may only lie 6th in their league but had to overcome some quality opposition to reach this final such as former champions Cornish Pirates. Still, all signs point to a home win as Munster’s stars of the future such as out-half Scott Deasy and prop David Kilcoyne will hope to bring home some timely silverware for the province.

That’s it for me this week…be sure to enjoy your rugby over the coming days wherever you are and I’ll be back next week to preview the final round of RaboPro12 matches. JLP


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