Leinster to edge derby battle of high emotions
Anscombe calls on Ulster's big-game players to step up to mark in bid to stop Cullen and Co providing a perfect send-off for Schmidt
AN evening of extravagant entertainment is in the offing at the RDS when the Pro12's pre-eminent teams do battle for the league title.
Ulster and Leinster have been the stand-out competitors in this season's competition. They finished the regulation season in first and second positions respectively and came through their semi-final jousts relatively comfortably.
It is true to say that European glory is what they crave above all else, but being consistent in their league campaigns – and being recognised as such – is also high on their list of priorities. Victory for either side will be a positive endorsement of their season's endeavours.
There are a myriad of sub-plots to this match. Ulster are desperate to win so as to secure something tangible, in the form of silverware, as validation of their efforts and evolution over the last 18 months. They do not remember their last appearance in a final – last season's Heineken Cup – with any fondness.
Their frailties, especially those of their inexperienced out-half Paddy Jackson, were ruthlessly exposed by Leinster in that one-sided final at Twickenham.
Twelve months on and Jackson is an Ireland international, Tommy Bowe is back in their white uniform and Nick Williams has been wowing everyone with his performances this season. His excellence was acknowledged when he was selected as the Pro12 Player of the Year.
Ulster will surely provide Leinster with a far tougher examination this time around, as Leo Cullen acknowledged.
"Ulster have dominated the league all season," said Cullen. "They had a little wobble, but got back on track, probably in the game down here. They have added some great players this season, most notably Nick Williams, and they will certainly be dangerous opposition."
Then there's the Nevin Spence factor. The effect his passing has had on the Ulster players cannot be underestimated. They were – and are – devastated by his loss.
Were circumstances not so tragically different Spence would likely have been playing in today's game. If not, he'd certainly have been in the squad.
There's a raw determination within them to win today, for themselves and for Nevin and his family as a way to commemorate his untimely passing.
Leinster, however, have plenty of motivation themselves. This is the last game for a number of their warriors. Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa, in particular, embark on new adventures next season, while coach Joe Schmidt is also off to pastures new.
"There's going to be a lot of emotion on the day for both sides for different reasons and it's about which side manages them the better," added Cullen.
Both Schmidt and Cullen were exceptionally generous in their praise of Ulster and a season that has seen them lose just six of the 29 competitive games. Only four of those losses were during the Pro12 regulation season and they won both meetings with Leinster.
Cullen did suggest that Ulster are the slight favourites for today's game, but Leinster's players are hugely motivated by the stigma they feel after losing the last three league finals in a row. To lose four is unconscionable for this amalgam of proud and talented warriors.
"Those games don't live with us," Cullen said, "but certainly last season we were well up with just nine minutes to go and we lost. Last year's loss is not something we talk a great deal about, but it is definitely in the back of everybody's mind.
"Ulster are a very different challenge, they have already won here a number of weeks ago, so they don't really hold any fear. In many ways, they would be the form team in the league this year, so going into it, they are probably favourites to win the game."
It is undeniably in Ulster's favour that they are very fresh for today's game. Their last outinge was on May 10, when they rather comfortably defeated Scarlets in the semi-finals of this competition.
Leinster had a far more arduous task against a hugely physical Glasgow Warriors side in their semi-final. They weren't overly tasked against Stade Francais in the Amlin Challenge Cup final last weekend, but it is a game that will have sapped some of the energy from their legs.
Schmidt did hold back a number of players, not least Cullen, his captain, and back-row Kevin McLaughlin, but Ulster will certainly hope to hold an advantage at scrum time – John Afoa returns at tighthead after a lay-off – and out of touch, where Johann Muller has been outstanding this season.
Coach Mark Anscombe is banking on the experience of his big-game players being able to edge things in their favour.
"John (Afoa) and players like Ruan (Pienaar) and Johann (Muller) have been part of World Cup-winning squads," said Anscombe.
"When the big moments come, they are cool heads under pressure and you can't put a price on that. When you put them together with our Ireland internationals and our excellent young players like Stuart Olding, then you have a great mix.
"This is a massive match, a local derby and it is an occasion that everyone at Ulster is looking forward to. In recent seasons Ulster have been the bridesmaids too often. We have done our learning – it's now time to step up and to prove that we are good enough."
Some of the individual battles that will rage this evening are mouth-wateringly exciting. The battle of the respective back threes, for example, will go a long way to determining the final outcome, while the old warrior Brian O'Driscoll will be challenged by Ulster's newest tyro Olding and the hugely impressive Darren Cave.
Sexton will face off against one of those challenging his Ireland throne in Jackson, but, as ever, it is the battle of the tight front-five forwards that will be most telling in determining the victor and those exchanges promise to be explosive.
Leinster are the great entertainers of European rugby when they get their hands on quick, clean possession.
Their subtle moves behind the scrum have earned them and coach Schmidt their big reputations, but, as ever in a local derby match, they must first win an attritional, demanding battle if they are to exercise their repertoire of attacking moves.
Nobody is more familiar with them and their style of play than their northern neighbours. Familiarity breeds preparedness in Ulster's case and, with their own battalion of talented strike forces behind the scrum, they too will put a premium on possession.
Strong arguments can be made for why both sides can emerge victorious.
That Leinster have already lost three finals in a row and with Schmidt, Nacewa and Sexton all bowing out at the final whistle, perhaps tonight might just be their night.