Leinster, Ulster to vie for title in London on May 19

[caption id="attachment_71353" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Leinster’s Sean O’Brien takes on Clermont in Bordeaux."]


Roll on Saturday, May 19, when Leinster and Ulster will clash at Twickenham in the first ever Heineken Cup final contested by two Irish provinces.

They got there after what can only be described as a perfect weekend for Irish rugby. Not only did Ulster and Leinster win their respective semi-finals but their achievements mean that Connacht make it into next season’s competition.

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Remarkably, Leinster’s 19-15 success over top French outfit Clermont in Bordeaux on Sunday means that they will be going for an unprecendented third Heineken Cup crown in four years. No one surely could have envisaged such a successful strike rate in Europe’s premier rugby competition.

Ulster’s achievement in reaching the final is, in its own way, just as noteworthy. At the start of the current competition they would have seen to have done well to have made the knock out stages.

But they have surpassed all expectations to reach their first final since winning the trophy back in 1999, beating Munster at Thomond Park along the way. Last Saturday’s semi-final saw them see off a determined Edinburgh side 22-19 at the Aviva Stadium.

It wasn’t Ulster at their best but that was perhaps to be expected as they had to deal with the tag of favourites. Furthermore, they were without two key performers in their suspended All Black prop John Afoa and hugely influential injured back-row-forward Chris Henry.

Coach Brian McLaughlin appreciates that they are going to have to be an awful lot better if they are to beat Leinster in the final. But there’s little doubt that Ulster will improve for the decider.

That said, Leinster will unquestionably go into the Twickenham final as favourites. Their achievements over the past four years have been quite astonishing.

Importantly, they have developed the habit, so long associated with Munster, of winning tight matches. That strength was always going to be called into question once they were given an away semi-final draw against Clermont.

The bookies were calling it as a 50/50 game. They were absolutely correct as this semi-final could not have been closer with centre Wesly Fontana very nearly snatching victory with a try in the dying minutes for Clermont.

But, as the French international celebrated along with his colleagues, the English referee Wayne Barnes went to the TMO (Television Match Official) who, quite rightly, ruled that Fontana had not grounded the ball properly.

That was the difference between victory and defeat, it could not have been closer. That said, this rated right up there among the greatest Leinster victories, simply because they were up against such strong opposition and the fact that the semi-final was in France.

What’s more, they had to come from 12-6 behind at half-time. At that stage, the Leinster supporters in the 32,397 crowd must have been worried.

The sheer power of the Clermont side was causing major problems in the scrum and the Leinster line-out wasn’t functioning. Johnny Sexton had managed two penalties for Leinster but Brock James had replied with four for Clermont.

But, just as they did in last season’s final against Northampton, Leinster came out with a different attitude in the second half. Within seven minutes they were 16-12 ahead, prop Cian Healy having scored a try following a great run from man-of-the-match Rob Kearney.

Sexton landed ther conversion and Kearney then sent over a wonderfully struck drop goal. From there on, it was Leinster’s match to lose, James and Sexton exchanging two more penalties to leave the score at 19-15 as the game went into the closing stages.

Leinster very nearly extended their advantage to seven points nine minutes from time but the TMO ruled that Sexton’s penalty had gone the wrong side of the post. Somehow you knew there was going to be one last piece of drama.

Initially Leinster looked like seeing the game out without too big a fuss but they lost possession at a line-out and were then penalised. Clermont took full advantage to drive down the field, providing Fontana with the chance to snatch the most dramatic of victories.

Thankfully, from Leinster’s point of view, his elbow hitting the ground first dislodged the ball. A shade lucky perhaps but Leinster deserved their bit of good fortune.

They scored the game’s only try and were the more creative side. And, yet again, their defence was outstanding.

While no one could argue with Kearney being named man-of-the-match, Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t far behind. His performances since returning from a six-month absence due to surgery on a disc in his neck, have been outstanding.

“The reason you do all the hard work of coming back from injury is to test yourself in these games. So, it’s fantastic to come out on the right side.” stressed O’Driscoll.

“It feels great because this was one of those games that was really going to test us. They’re probably the best team in France at the moment and they really wanted to win the Heineken Cup.

“We should have been more than four points up with five minutes to go and that’s what would annoy me. But overall it’s brilliant, it’s a fantastic occasion for Ireland to have two finalists.”

While Ulster’s semi-final may not have had quite the same drama of the Leinster match, it was exciting nonetheless. Like Leinster, they found themselves in a battle throughout.

Edinburgh, under the coaching of former Irish scrum-half Michael Bradley, have been at their best in Europe, beating Toulouse among others. They continued that trend with a fine performance in front of a crowd of 45,147 at the Aviva Stadium.

They played plenty of good rugby without having the necessary cutting edge. Ulster led 13-9 at the interval, South African Pedrie Wannenburg scoring a try from a scrum which his fellow countryman Ruan Pienaar converted.

Man-of-the-match Pienaar also kicked two penalties, with Greig Laidlaw responding with three for Edinburgh. Scrum-half Pienaar’s impecable goalkicking allowed Ulster to move 22-12 clear with three more second half penalties before substitute Jim Thompson struck with a last minute try which enabled Edinburgh reduce the deficit to 22-19 at the final whistle.

Coach Brian McLaughlin knows that more will be needed if Ulster are to beat Leinster. He said: “Our performance today was disappointing but we are really pleased with the result.

“We now have got a final at Twickenham to look forward too and the guys know they have to improve. But they will also know there is a lot more in them.”