McCormack's head and heart say Blues
HAVING played for both Ulster and Leinster in the middle of the last decade, Ronnie McCormack saw the structures in place for one of them in particular to become a consistent force in Europe.
And, perhaps surprisingly, it was the northern province that looked better prepared for continental domination, according to the prop who spent two seasons in Belfast before moving to Leinster in 2005.
"I was shocked when I went to Leinster," admitted McCormack, who featured off the bench in the 2009 European Cup final win over Leicester. "They were struggling to get a gym big enough for a rugby team to train in. We were still training in Belvedere College and then driving back to Riverview in our gear to change.
"Ulster were way ahead in terms of off-the-field facilities. They had the fundamentals in place, with a stadium, a hardcore group of supporters -- Ulster won the Best Supported Team in the Celtic League when I was there -- and they had the facilities.
"Leinster had just moved to the RDS and that whole project was just starting to take off. Obviously, Dublin would have been a much trickier environment to work in, given the price of things, but Ulster were well ahead off the field."
McCormack was forced to retire in late 2010 due to a neck injury and, by that stage, Leinster were a completely different organisation.
"I think (Michael) Cheika came in and just demanded more and expected more. He wasn't prepared to just do what everyone else had done He put a few noses out of joint maybe and let some senior people go, but the club was transformed by the time he left.
"The attitude changed. Glorious defeats and games where you'd get great rugby from the backs and nothing from the forwards were gone. We were much more of a team."
McCormack's move to Leinster meant he became the first player to play for three provinces, having started his professional career at Connacht.
Scrum-half Cillian Willis is another to have crossed the divide between Leinster and Ulster, but after that, connections are scarce.
Paddy Wallace played for UCD, but never Leinster. Paddy Jackson, the young bolter who looks set to start at out-half tomorrow -- had an uncle, Michael, who captained Blackrock, while Eric Miller also played for both sides.
McCormack was the only southerner on the squad at the time and, while he believes that would have made some in Ulster uncomfortable, he expects a greater cross-pollination across the provinces, particularly in light of the IRFU's new policy on NIQ (non Irish qualified) players.
"I was the only southerner in the squad at the time. Being totally honest, looking back, I think it would have been a problem for some of the more senior members of the squad at the time and maybe for an element of the support too.
"But I can't ever say it manifested itself in any way at all. It wasn't something we joked or laughed about, it just wasn't talked about. I think people knew that with professional sport, that was going to happen and you'll see more and more of that over the coming seasons.
"I was very happy at Ulster," continued McCormack, who runs Ranelagh-based Health and fitness company Strong in Body along with former Irish Schools player John Lane.
"There was a three-year contract extension on the table and the only team I would have left them to join was Leinster and even at that, it was a tough decision to leave."
Both his head and heart say Leinster will prevail tomorrow despite the obvious merits of Ruan Pienaar and company.
"Finals can be dangerous, but Leinster have a lot going for them in terms of experience and form. I remember in 2009 there was a real sense that it was only the beginning of something bigger and that could be realised this weekend."