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Twickenham poised for all-Irish final

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Bryn Palmer | 19:39 UK time, Thursday, 17 May 2012

Saturday's Heineken Cup final at Twickenham will be a celebration of Irish rugby, the first denouement between two sides from the country in 17 years of the tournament.

Leinster, aiming for a third title in four years to join Toulouse as the only other team to have won it more than twice, start favourites against Ulster, who triumphed back in 1999.

BBC Sport has taken the opinions of two former Ireland captains - Phillip Matthews (38 caps from 1984 to 1991 and an ex-Ulster flanker) and Keith Wood (58 caps from 1994 to 2003 and a Heineken Cup finalist with Munster in 2000) - for some insight into Saturday's proceedings.

Two former winners from the two provinces - Ulster's 1999-winning full-back Bryn Cunningham and Leinster lock Malcolm O'Kelly, who played in their 2009 triumph, also weigh in with their thoughts.

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So, an all-Irish final... how did that happen?

Well, it's no surprise Leinster are here again. They are a team of all talents, they finished top of the Pro 12 league by 10 points, and they play some of the finest attacking rugby to be found anywhere in the world.

They can also slug it out with the best of them, as they showed in winning a pulsating semi-final over French giants Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux.

Ulster, it's fair to say, were not being tipped by many at the outset, despite reaching the last eight a year ago for the first time since 1999.

They came through a very tough group which included Leicester and Clermont, stunned two-time champions Munster in their Limerick fortress in the quarter-finals, and held off Edinburgh in a tight semi-final in Dublin to make it through.

How come the Irish sides have become so dominant in Europe?

Certainly a fifth Irish winner in the last seven years - whoever prevails on Saturday - suggests they are doing something right.

A variety of reasons have been put forward, ranging from player management, lack of relegation in the Pro 12 allowing teams to develop a more expansive style, the influence of some innovative Antipodean coaches, to the essential 'spirit' of the provinces.

Irish players certainly play fewer matches in a season than their English counterparts slugging it out in the Premiership, allowing them to rest at certain times and peak for the Heineken Cup.

"In England, clubs are king. In Ireland, country is king, and the country has control of the Heineken Cup teams, because they contract the players, so it is a very different structure," observes Matthews, who nevertheless gives short shrift to the notion that English and French clubs, who provided nine out of the first 10 European champions, are now at a disadvantage.

"I don't buy this theory about the over-intensity of the English season and relegation stopping teams from playing a certain way. I think it comes down to attitude and the tradition of each country.

"England have had quite size-orientated, forward-based teams, since the days of Will Carling's side, and they feel they have to play to their strengths. To a large extent, successful teams in the Premiership, like Leicester, still play that way.

"But if someone matches you physically, what do you do then? If you haven't had to find that something extra in the Premiership, you can't suddenly find it in Europe. To be successful in Europe now, you have to play more of a 15-man game, as Leinster have."

Leinster beat Northampton Saints in last year's Heineken Cup final. Photo: Getty

A few blue-chip imports can't do any harm either?

As well as a fine group of locally-produced players led by the thunderous Stephen Ferris, Ulster have benefited hugely from the influence of an All Blacks prop (John Afoa) and a quartet of Springboks: full-back Stefan Terblanche, lock Johann Muller, number eight Pedrie Wannenburg and scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, the latter kicking 14 points in the quarter-final and 17 in the semi.

"Pienaar is just the calmest man in the world," says Wood. "He is slotting kicks from 55m and banging them 20 yards over the bar. He just doesn't seem to feel the pressure."

Cunningham adds: "He is probably the most humble guy you will ever come across, for one of the best players in the world. He has no airs or graces, despite what he has achieved, and gives time to all the young players coming through. On and off the pitch he has been outstanding for Ulster."

Leinster have also recruited wisely. Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom was the star of their first Heineken triumph in 2009 before returning to Australia. This year, needing an experienced lock as cover while captain Leo Cullen recovered from surgery, they turned to All Black Brad Thorn, who at 37 will become the oldest player to feature in a Heineken Cup final.

"They wanted to make certain they got a leader, and a heavy ball-carrier with a big work-rate, and that is what they got," says Wood. "New Zealanders in particular can have such an influence on the younger guys." Adds O'Kelly: "Watching him lately, I think he is getting better as he gets older."

Why are so many pundits purring about Leinster?

Former England centre Will Greenwood described the first 45 minutes of their quarter-final win over Cardiff Blues, in which they racked up four tries and a 34-3 lead, as "absolute brilliance". Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin calls them a "smashing rugby side".

"Because it is a less structured system where individuals use their own inventiveness, it is difficult to play against and you can't over-analyse it, because they are likely to pull something else off that you haven't planned for," says Matthews.

"They have reached a sort of rugby nirvana, which perhaps only New Zealand, and lately Wales, have reached, where it looks like it has all been thrown together and everyone is doing their own thing. But it's all done within a particular system."

Ruan Pienaar kicked five penalties and a conversion in the 22-19 semi-final win over Edinburgh. Photo: Getty

Doesn't sound like Ulster have much of a chance then?

Not necessarily, if you listen to coach McLaughlin, for whom Saturday could be a bitter-sweet final game in charge, having been told mid-season that he is being replaced by unheralded New Zealander, Mark Anscombe, next season.

"We are not going to Twickenham to make up the numbers. We are going to make sure we perform and show we are a quality side as well," he says.

Recent meetings between the two sides don't bode well for Ulster though. Their last win came in October 2009, while Leinster have won the last five, including home and away for the last two seasons.

"Psychologically, that is probably the biggest battle for Ulster," says Cunningham. "If they are going to win, it is not just on the pitch but in their minds before the game."

But once they get on to the Twickenham turf, will their renowned defence be able to cope with Leinster's all-singing, all-dancing attack?

"I don't think they can shut them out completely," says Matthews. "They can't afford to think they can squeeze the life out of them and score penalties to win it. They will have to score tries as well. They can put Leinster under pressure and make them doubt themselves.

"But I think Leinster have too many leaders - Brian O'Driscoll, Brad Thorn, Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonny Sexton - who can pick it up when they need to. I can't see Ulster suppressing that."

O'Driscoll? We haven't even mentioned him yet. Didn't he have an operation last week?

A little trim of the knee cartilage apparently, although most mortals wouldn't contemplate playing in a major final eight days later.

"As soon as he came out of the hospital he said, 'I am playing'," says Wood. "I played with him and the great thing about him, even as young man, was that if he declared himself fit, he was fit enough. If he wasn't fit, he was man enough not to play."

So more glory for BoD and Leinster beckons then?

"I would fully expect Leinster to win," says O'Kelly. "They are overwhelming favourites but that brings a certain weight on the shoulders."

Wood concurs. "It should be Leinster's title again. But if Ulster turn up and Leinster are not quite up to the mark, it could be very tight."

And BoD's thoughts? "You realise that when you get to a final, all bets are off. Anything can happen."


  • Comment number 1.

    first comment! unless someone else butt's in.....
    anyway, looking forward to this weekend's sport like no other. certainly putting some bets on! Champions League final etc. aswell obvi. As a Scotland supporter i was disappointed not to see Edinburgh through as i may have planned a wee trip down to England, and they also play very exciting, attacking rugby, so it would have made for a fantastic spectacle but ah well.
    can only see Leinster winning tbh, Ulster have been excellent but feel this will be one step too far. i just love watching these South Africans and New Zealanders teaming up with some of the best players around these isles.
    anyway good luck to both teams and may the best team win :D

  • Comment number 2.

    In BoD we trust! This guy has almost mythical status in Ireland, I for one can't understand how you could even contemplate playing 8 days after sugery. I really am starting to doubt that he's even human. I guess we'll find out how human he is on saturday.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good though it is to see 2 provinces through to the final, I wiuld have preferred to have an "international element " to it.

  • Comment number 4.

    2 provinces through to the final, good? bad? all i know is the 2 best club team in NH are from ireland, and that cant be bad for ireland!!!

  • Comment number 5.

    The final is going to be absolutely fascinating. The Clermont-Leinster semi was so absorbing, so if it is anywhere near as good as that I will be very happy.

    I think one of the reasons the two sides have done so well in Europe is that they have made very astute signings to go along with their home grown talent. Some were obviously going to tick all the right boxes...Brad Thorn, the most successfull man in rugby (both codes) would obviously improve Leinster. Some of the lesser known players to be signed have been some of the best though. Nacewa for Leinster and Afoa for Ulster have been superb. I know they were rated in NZ, but they weren't star players on the international scene and it could have been easier to sign an ageing player, rather than someone trying to prove his worth.

    While Pienaar is having a comparable influence over Ulster's fate as Dimitri Yachvilli does at Biarritz. Surely he should contemplete returning to SA, he is a far more accomplished scrumhalf than Francois Houggard.

    For anyone interested in reading another preview of the game, Dumptackle rugby blog has a pretty in depth analysis of their road to the final and the key battles on saturday. It makes for a good read.

  • Comment number 6.


  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    This has all the signs of an epic final to a great competition. Perhaps that's easier for me to say than some other rugby fans. There's been some stiff competition along the way for both teams but has one team rode their luck more than the other? Being as diplomatic as possible, that still a tough question.

    London will be awash with the Irish, Irish/Irish and the British/Irish or whatever you want to call yourself, united for one purpose. Great to see that it's all about rugby and historical provinces of Ireland. No politics allowed!

    With Leinster as favourites and Ulster as underdogs I have to route for the Ulster men. Nothing to do with being from there.

    Nerves will be wrecked but at least I will be there to cheer them on and do my bit.


  • Comment number 9.


    Just so you know i'm an All Black supporter, so it's not northern hemisphere bias.

    You can enjoy a game with two tries, just as much (or in some cases more) than a match with 6. As far as I remember the last world cup final only had one try...and that was also 'absorbing'.

    I agree the skill levels in the Super 15 are higher, but then again, the refereeing is also different. For example, the scrums are not really used as an attacking weapon, due to the interpretations of the refs. How would all the Aussie sides fare in the Heineken Cup conceding penalty tries left right and centre through poor scrummaging?

    The spectacle of the heineken Cup is actually far better than the Super 15 (by the way note I'm am saying Heineken Cup, not Aviva premiership or Top 14 etc). If you can't see that, perhaps you need to get your head out of the ground.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hate the way the focus is placed solely on ulster's kicking game. Yes Pienaar's kicking has been key to getting ulster to the final but people are making it out that's all Ulster are about... Seem to have forgotten that ulster still score a considerable amount of tries... 41-7 win over english premiership finalists just one of many games that can be mentioned! so all those certain for a Leinster win tomorrow you're in for a rude awakening!

  • Comment number 11.


    Always good to see a new WUM on the block. You obviously don't watch a lot of NH rugby do you chap? Just landed with some SH prejudices eh? Never mind.

    Have a look at the Leinster-Cardiff quarter-final and think again.

  • Comment number 12.

    True that Ulster have lost twice to Leinster this season but had their B team out in the away fixture and a well depleted team in the Ravenhill match. That doesn't diminish the Leinster wins as you can only play who is on the field. Point is that this Ulster team will be much stronger and ready for the final. They will start as underdogs but they want to make a point so here's hoping for a great match.

  • Comment number 13.


    I assume from you post that wanted people to have a pop at you. Perhaps you secretly enjoy it?

    The IRB must be rubbing their hands in glee! Their "punter recruitment" plans must be know, the one that can be summarised as;

    Football is really, really easy to understand, hence its popularity. Rugby is much harder to understand and is therefore less popular. So this must be negative part of our "product" that must be removed. Therefore players and referees should...

    - Run everything
    - Don't bother enforcing any laws that get in the way of running everything
    - Ruthlessly penalise forward play...unless it's about "big hits" that we can sell DVDs of later.
    - De-power scrums, remove proper breakdown contest.

    That way, people with low attention spans may be tempted to watch, buy replica shirts and watch beer ads between the "plays"! Does this sound like you?

    Super 14 is to rugby what IPL is to cricket. A rigged contest between defence and attack, between bat and ball. The fools cheer! The cash tills ring! But it ain't the real thing!

    Go Leinster by the way! The better team to my mind!

  • Comment number 14.

    Comment re international flavour.
    Surely that's exactly what we have for Saturday's match.
    Two top class sides populated with overseas and home grown talent (Human or other we don't care).
    Power to the game and may the best team win.
    Let's hope that it will be the spectacle that it promises to be. Good Luck...............

  • Comment number 15.

    In 1999 Ulster were wrote off as no hopers in the final and look what happened. This year we were written off against Munster and now against Leinster. I agree on paper that Leinster have a better side but we are not playing on paper we are playing on a rugby field and in a final where form goes out the window. It is who shows up on the day. Ulster Love being underdogs and love proving what a great side they are. No superstars just a tight team ready for a challenge. It's going to be a hell of a game whatever happens! On another note it is bodes well for the Ireland side with the Irish Provences being so dominant in the competition. Good luck Ulster! Spirit of 99!! SUFTUM!

  • Comment number 16.

    I think an intersting aspect of the game will be the Ulster coach leaving. Not that the players need any more incentive but i'm sure they must be thinking 'hey this is our year'.

    I remember when the Brumbies effectively sacked their coach Laurie Fisher half-way through a super 12 season a few years ago (he continued to coach until the end of the season) and the Brumbies developed an us against the world mentality. They went on to hammer the crusaders in the final.

    Perhaps it is Ulser's year too. What must incoming coach Mark Anscombe be thinking? If Ulster win...the only way to go is down!

  • Comment number 17.

    Sorry for the football comparison, but this reminds me of last years Champions League final between United and Barca. The best team in the competition against a very good team that needs the best team to have a bit of an off-day. If Leinster play like they have done in previous rounds they'll surely win it, but as someone else said above the Ulster players will take bullets for McLaughlin in his last match.

    Disagree with the comments saying both teams are a mix of international and home-grown talent. Nacewa and Thorn are the only two players in the Leinster side not from Ireland.

  • Comment number 18.


    Im just asking for some running rugby, try a few moves, that actually come off. Not just forwards mauling it up, kick for touch, and then penatly and restart game again. Not asking for try fest. You listen to the crowd cheer for when one of the irish teams kick the ball for a 5 or 10 metre lineout. They scream louder than when a try is scored. Kicking for 5 metre line out to opposition is only giving the ball away from try scoring situation for other team to then win lineout, kick ball up field again. You've over analysised what i said.

    Im not comparing it to super 14, which is not super 15, include all the test matches with SH teams, many tries scored, in tough tight encounters. Tries as a result of positive play, no 10 man rugby in big games.

    So vonBraun you got to see some tries in quarter final, lucky you, but I was talking about finals and big games (tests) that NH teams compete in. But you must of really racked the brain to come up with that one.

    The other fella who said Heinken cup better than super 15, it shows doens't it, having 2 teams from ireland, 7th best team in the world making the finals. Going to be a thriller I bet. And when a discard from Super 15 or International SH team turns up to play for big cash, hes a hero up here, can't make it down below anymore.

    Enjoy the substandard rugby, if you're happy with this you're never going to catch SH teams anytime soon. Argentina got up to 5th in world recently, they'll be back in mix soon and another NH team will drop down the ladder. Lets see how you all go in June test matches down under. Not one win for you lot i bet.

  • Comment number 19.

    Eh... last time I looked, the Heineken Cup was a competition for European rugby clubs.
    Is it as good as southern hemisphere rugby? ...I don't know and I don't care!

    I can't wait for tomorrow. SUFTUM!

  • Comment number 20.


    Out of interest, have you ever actually watched Leinster play? They play some quality attacking rugby, Sexton runs from 10 much more than other NH fly-halfs do. And saying Pienaar 'couldn't make it' down below is a bit of an exaggeration, he undoubtedly could. Just wanted a new challenge, and by the sounds of it he's very glad he did.

    Ireland's world ranking of 7 doesn't do justice to the players in the squad, it's just that they never seem to play as well for Ireland as they do for their provinces. But when they do they showed they can beat SH opposition, look at the win over Australia in the World Cup.

  • Comment number 21.

    @red little wagon. If u don't like NH rugby, don't watch it. Oh, & don't comment on it either. Subscribe to Sky & watch the SH 'league-lite' you clearly prefer.

  • Comment number 22.

    Anglophone I salute you Sir. Well said. :-)

  • Comment number 23.

    I would like the Heineken Cup to return to what it was originally intended to be. A competition to find the best Rugby club in Europe.

    This year Clermont were the best club in Europe as they were the only non province/region to reach the semi finals.

    Ireland, Wales and Scotland have sold the souls of their club game in an attempt to win the Heineken Cup. A victory by either side this weekend will be a hollow one.

    Just imagine if the French entered the following regions:

    A south west region comprising of players from Biarritz, Toulouse, Bayonne and Agen.
    A south East region comprising of players from Castres, Montpellier, Perpignan and Toulon
    A central region comprising of players from Brive, Clermont, Lyon and Bordeaux
    A Paris region comprising of players from Stade Francais and Racing Metro.

    Just imagine if the English entered the following regions:

    A south West region comprising of players from Bath, Gloucester, Exeter and Bristol
    A midlands region comprising of players from Leicester, Northampton and Worcester
    A northern region comprising of players from Newcastle, Sale and Leeds
    A London Region comprising of players from Harlequins, Wasps, London Irish and Saracens

    I think the finalists would be very different but the English and French clubs won't sell out.

  • Comment number 24.

    You can't be serious Bob can you? It's a question of numbers. Ireland couldn't possibly sustain more than four club sides so does it matter if their name is Leinster, Munster, Connacht & Ulster instead of "Dublin Dynamos", "Limerick Lions", "Galways Gaels", or "Belfast Bulls"? Totally ignorant comment from a bitter fan.

    Rugby is a long way down the list of most popular sport in Ireland. First comes our own gaelic games of Football and Hurling, next is Soccer then i would say Golf. So that places Rugby Union fifth on the list of an island that has less than half the population of greater London.

    How many top class sides does London have? Four according to your own list and that's with double the population. I hope you revise your opinion.

  • Comment number 25.

    ("England have had quite size-orientated, forward-based teams, since the days of Will Carling's side, and they feel they have to play to their strengths. To a large extent, successful teams in the Premiership, like Leicester, still play that way.)

    So bored with this attitude towards Tigers, yet again this season the highest try scorers in the Premiership, so yes we do play an outstanding forwards game but also can also play the 15 man version. Rant over, I tip Ulster for this weekend, I feel they really have a belief in themselves that they can do it, won't be easy to beat a quality Leinster side though.

  • Comment number 26.

    Umm.. Bob, and what about the population density of these other countries mentioned compared with Irleand, Scotland, Wales... etc. Is that not a factor? Or are you just jealous of the Celt domination now our provinces here in Ireland have the resources in place and pulling power to attract the southern hemisphere talent and compete at the highest level?

    Anyways... back to the point.. Ulster to win by 2. Last min Pienaar penalty.. you heard it here first! SUFTUM

  • Comment number 27.

    (Rugby is a long way down the list of most popular sport in Ireland. First comes our own gaelic games of Football and Hurling, next is Soccer then i would say Golf. So that places Rugby Union fifth on the list of an island that has less than half the population of greater London)

    Its not exactly top of the list in England now is it? And lets face it, the Provinces all get major tv coverage outside of their own countries which is more than Gaelic Football or Hurling do (by the way Hurling what a great sport). Yes the English population is higher and yes with the number of registered players we have the advantage but with the Irish Union controlled provincial teams, the advantage lies with them.

  • Comment number 28.


  • Comment number 29.

    Bryn, great blog and not one to be picky, but we Ulstermen remember our heroes. The backline for the 1999 triumph was: 15:SIMON MASON, 14:SHELDON COULTER, ,13:JAN CUNNINGHAM (replaced at half time due to fractured eye socket, by Stan McDowell), 12:JOHNNY BELL, 11:ANDY PARK, 10: DAVID HUMPHRIES and 9: ANDY MATCHETT.

    So, "Ulster's 1999-winning full-back Bryn Cunningham" isn't correct (particularly given that Mason delivered most of the points with his metronomic right boot!), but he may have been on the bench.


  • Comment number 30.

    @oddshapedballs / bob

    England has approximately six times more senior male rugby players than Ireland which means they have a significantly bigger pool to choose from. It is then up to the RFU to maximise what their pool can achieve. The provincial system hasn't exactly been created for the Heineken Cup either running since 1920, the province has always taken priority over the club - if the IRFU sold out it was about 100 years ago.

  • Comment number 31.


    Never claimed the IRFU have sold out, that was an argument from someone elses comment. And yes we have more players to "choose" from but it is a club led system not RFU controlled as in Ireland. This I believe since the professional era given the Irish and other Celtic teams in the "provincial" system a more level playing field. Having centrally contracted players avoids the club vs country arguments and IRFU support for the provincial teams gives them financial (when needed) and resource support that otherwise may not be available.

  • Comment number 32.

    @TinyRedWagon what a WUM. To say the SH players couldn't hack it in the SH and end up in the NH maybe has something to do with your own situation...YAWN SUFTUM

  • Comment number 33.

    Leinster! Leinster! Leinster!

  • Comment number 34.


    Was there quite enough running in that for you?

    Fair dues to Ulster, played a good game but Leinster were executioner supreme.


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