Video: Leinster to take place among legends
Exerting control over Ulster pivot Pienaar key factor as Schmidt’s dogged side chase back-to-back Euro crowns
FORGET about foregone conclusions, the closer it gets to the 5.0 kick-off time, the stronger the belief that Ulster could produce something special in this evening's Heineken Cup final.
Most people believed that once Munster and Toulouse were ejected at the quarter-final stage, Clermont were the only side left in the competition capable of derailing Leinster's back-to-back European aspirations.
The French came extremely close and once Joe Schmidt and his side emerged from that explosive semi-final in Bordeaux, the general consensus outside the camp was that the title was theirs.
This belated swaying towards Ulster could simply because we want to witness an epic final battle, but there are tangible, logical reasons also to believe that this encounter will not be a routine victory for the favourites.
Firstly, Ulster's build-up has progressed far more smoothly than their opponents', who have been assailed by injury concerns right to up to kick-off. Having doubts over the best Irish player this season (Rob Kearney) and the finest of all time (Brian O'Driscoll) is far from ideal for Schmidt, regardless of the quality of cover.
Schmidt suggested at yesterday's pre-match press conference that there were issues over a number of other players also, including sub scrum-half Isaac Boss, who has been devoid of meaningful action since the 53 minutes he played against Clermont on April 24.
Meanwhile, Brian McLaughlin and his Ulster players have been cruising along, relaxed and eager after a training camp in Portugal and back to full-strength with the restoration of John Afoa and Chris Henry to tight-head prop and open-side flanker respectively.
The sense of assured confidence emanating from the Ulster camp this week has been compelling and undoubtedly stems from the knowledge that, whatever happens this evening, what they have achieved to get here has far exceeded expectations.
With this inherent self-belief backed up by quality players in key positions, Ulster have reason to be confident. Now it is about putting the tactical pieces in place.
1 Unleashing Afoa
Schmidt said yesterday he did not believe Ulster would target the scrum more than any other key area, but there is no question that there is a belief among the challengers that they can gain a significant advantage through Afoa. When you add the established scrummaging skills of hooker Rory Best to the All Blacks strong-man, not to mention the under-rated power of Tom Court when he is on the loose-head side, you are talking about a pretty accomplished trio.
And while Mike Ross should be able to cope comfortably with Court, Ulster could use Afoa and Best in tandem to go after Cian Healy on the far side. Healy's scrummaging is developing all the time, but this is a massive test for the Ireland loose-head, still only 24, while Richardt Strauss is not the biggest hooker around and Best will back himself to dominate their personal duel.
All in all, Ulster, bolstered by evidence of the difficulties Leinster experienced in the first half of last year's final and Healy's and Ross' hammering here against England in March, have supreme confidence in their ability to win the scum showdown and set the psychological tone.
2 The thing about Kevin
Selecting Kevin McLaughlin ahead of Shane Jennings was a big call by Schmidt and clear acknowledgement of the need to address the line-out problems encountered against Clermont. Ulster fancy their line-out, as they should, with the statistics confirming they are the most effective aerial operation in the competition.
Johann Muller runs the show with Dan Tuohy as chief lieutenant, but the selection of McLaughlin allows Leinster to counter the height of Pedrie Wannenburg at the back. Brad Thorn has a huge reputation as a rugby player, but is not the go-to line-out option and, with quick ball off the top the launchpad for their best back-line moves, Leinster needed the extra height. It should even up the battle out of touch, while Strauss concurrently needs to match the consistently accurate throwing of Best.
3 Ruan and only
Rugby matches can never be won purely through the actions of a single individual, but it is hard to think of a one-man show to match Ruan Pienaar's display against Edinburgh in the semi-final -- it is up there with Dan Carter's stunning turn for the All Blacks in the second Test hammering of the 2005 Lions.
His overwhelming influence has seen Ulster jokingly referred to as 'The Lone Star State' in Leinster circles. Pienaar's control from the base of scrum and breakdown takes the pressure off young out-half Paddy Jackson, while his long-distance place-kicking against Munster and Edinburgh meant Ulster were a scoring threat even inside their own half.
This places a huge onus on Leinster discipline today and on closing down Pienaar's space when he is shaping to dictate play -- one of Sean O'Brien's main objectives.
Ulster have quality internationals in their line-up, Best, Afoa, Muller and Stephen Ferris among them, but if Leinster can significantly reduce the influence of Pienaar, they are well on their way.
4 Ground war
Going with McLaughlin for his extra height meant losing the breakdown skills of Shane Jennings and Chris Henry will be out to replicate his outstanding showing against Munster by getting after Leinster's ruck ball and winning turnovers. However, O'Brien has shown his ability to make his presence felt in this area and had an excellent outing against Clermont.
But, similar to the scrum and line-out, Henry's excellence since he was converted from No 8 to openside (which reflects extremely well on Brian McLaughlin's knowledge of the job) means Ulster, just as with the scrum and line-out, will feel they can gain an advantage here.
5 Wide angle
Backline invention, particularly with no Ian Humphreys in the Ulster line-up, is an area where Leinster have a pronounced advantage if they hit their stride. The appreciation of space, depth and angle of running, passing skills and overall variation of attack under Schmidt is at a different level to every other side in Europe.
Ulster have their strike weapons also through the promptings of the in-form Paddy Wallace, the pace and verve of Craig Gilroy and strength of Andrew Trimble, but Leinster can be truly sublime when they get going with good ball.