Monday 20 May 2013

Ulster vs Leinster Rabo Pro 12 Final Preview

As seen here

Ulster and Leinster have had very contrasting seasons up to this point, but that counts for nothing when the two best teams from this season's Pro 12 clash in the RDS in Dublin on Saturday 25th May. It should prove to be an enthralling match, as all local derbies are, and I for one, am hoping that this success for the Irish provinces will translate onto the national scene once Joe Schmidt moves from Leinster head coach to the Irish national job.

As mentioned already, the teams have had very different seasons, with Ulster starting this season in superb form before fading and stuttering into this final, while Leinster didn't start as well, before picking up momentum after Christmas and storming into two finals.

Ulster's early season form was the envy of Europe, with game unbeaten run finally halted by Northampton in Round 4 of the Heineken Cup in December. In the middle of this, the tragic passing of promising centre Nevin Spence seemed to spur them, and this will help get the neutrals on their side come Saturday.

Leinster started badly, and were left requiring a maximum haul of 10 points from 10 in the final two rounds of the Heineken Cup and a miracle from other games to avoid missing out on the quarter finals for the first time in . Unfortunately, while they did what was required of them, it didn't come to pass, and they were left to rue poor early season form that left them out of the Heineken Cup and with points to make up on leaders Ulster at the halfway stage of the Rabo Pro 12.

Leinster will be hoping to win for departing players Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa, as well as incoming Irish coach Joe Schmidt. Nacewa is a Leinster legend, who is retiring at the young age of 30 to move back to new Zealand. Leinster have lost at this stage for the last three years in a row and will want to put that right.

Both teams will want to win more than just for the final.

Ulster have a strong scrum, bolstered by John Afoa, the mighty All Black, Rory Best, who was desparately unlucky not to receive a call up for the Lions, and Tom Court who seems to grow in their presence. Johann Muller, the captain, is ably assisted by Dan Tuohy in the engine room, and they provide Ulster with great options out of touch. A back row made up of 3 from Iain Henderson, the young marauder, Robbie Diack who has been in great form, Chris Henry and someone who should be familiar to Italian followers, Nick Williams. Williams has been in outstanding form this season, winning the Rabo Pro 12 player of the year. Before Christmas he was swatting opposing players away at will.

Ruan Pienaar runs the game from scrumhalf, and eases young Paddy Jackson into games. Stuart Olding, who will feature for the Ireland in the Junior World Cup in the summer is the last man standing at inside centre, with Darren Cave enjoying a wonderful campaign. Tommy Bowe, Ulster's only 2013 Lion, is back from injury and scoring tries, with Andrew Trimble having his best season for Ulster, and Jared Payne weaving his magic from fullback. This Ulster team has threats throughout the side.

Leinster rested a large cohort of their first team in last week's victorious final vs Stade Francais. Cian Healy is likely to come in, assisted by Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross providing a solid platform from the scrum. Devin Toner is in good form in the back end of the season, and is likely to partner Leo Cullen in the second row. Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip in the back row, after Sean O'Brien limped out of the Amlin final.

Isaac Boss will continue to partner Jonny Sexton, in his last game for at least two years for Leinster. Ian Madigan and Brian O'Driscoll will form the midfield partnership, with Rob Kearney coming back into form (finally), and Isa Nacewa and Andrew Conway making their last appearances for the province.

As for predictions, I keep going back a forth. Ulster have beaten Leinster twice this season, recording their first win in Dublin for 13 seasons. While Leinster are now in form, have rested a number of key players and will not want to lose this final for the third year in a row. It's going to be a tense game, with no more than a score in the difference.

Prediction: Leinster to win.

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