Heineken Cup - Underdogs Ulster aim for new glory

Thu, 17 May 15:52:00 2012

When long shots Ulster won the 1999 Heineken Cup it was considered something of a one-off in a boycotted year but they now face Leinster in Saturday's Twickenham final as part of the ultimate manifestation of Irish dominance of the competition.

Ulster's Declan Fitzpatrick (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a try against Edinburgh during the semi-final European Rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, - 0

Holders Leinster are chasing their third title in four years while the first all-Irish final guarantees a fifth Irish success in seven years.

It is all very different from when Ulster beat Colomiers in the final of a 1999 tournament weakened by the absence of English and leading Welsh clubs.

These days the Irish regions - the Republic and Northern Ireland being considered one nation in rugby terms - have taken Europe's premier club tournament to their hearts and have reaped the rewards in their trophy cabinets.

Munster set the bar high with two wins following two final defeats but their hopes of a third success this year were ended when Ulster stunned them in the quarter-finals with a rare success at Thomond Park.

The northerners then got past Edinburgh in the semis to reach their second final but they start as underdogs against a Leinster side who have again produced some scintillating rugby.

With Brian O'Driscoll back having missed the pool phase, Leinster crushed the Cardiff Blues in the quarter-finals before delivering a superb attacking display to beat Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux, albeit thanks in the end to the French side having a match-winning try ruled out by the video referee.

It was no lucky win, however. Leinster, like Munster before them, have developed into a team who find a way to win the big games and victory on Saturday would make them the first to go through a Heineken Cup campaign unbeaten.

They are playing with the confidence and verve earned from their previous final victories, not least last year's astonishing comeback win over Northampton in Cardiff where they overturned a 16-point halftime deficit to win 33-22.

Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton inspired that fightback and he has been at the heart of their attack this season, particularly with his trademark inside pass supplied to a gaggle of eager backs which regularly rips holes in even the tightest defences.

Sexton backs up his visionary passing with ultra-reliable goal kicking and he is operating at around 90 percent success rate this season.

"He is the general who runs our game," said Leinster coach Joe Schmidt. "He's a quality goalkicker, has an excellent passing game and to judge his defence you only have to look at his hit on Jamie Cudmore in the final play against Clermont on our line."

They are vastly experienced up front too, with 37-year-old lock Brad Thorn hoping to become the first player to scoop a treble of World Cup, Super Rugby and Heineken Cup winner's medals following his success with New Zealand last year and with the Canterbury Crusaders in 2008.

Munster will have to ensure they are fully concentrated at all times to plug the holes Sexton creates, certainly more so than in their semi-final where Edinburgh regularly pierced the line only to subsequently drop the ball.

Ulster will hope that the return of All Black prop John Afoa and flanker Chris Henry from suspension and injury respectively will ensure a return to the formidable wall they built to keep Munster at bay in the quarter-final.

When they do get the ball they will need to get themselves into positions where former South Africa scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar can inflict the sort of goalkicking damage that contributed so much to their previous two knockout stage wins.

It is a fascinating match-up that will produce a terrific atmosphere in the sold-out 82,000-capacity Twickenham.

"Leinster are not just the best team they are the most consistent team so it's a huge challenge," said Ulster's director of rugby David Humphreys, who captained the province to that groundbreaking final victory 13 years ago.

"But everyone involved with Ulster believes that it is time the constant references to 1999 are put to bed and this is our chance to do that."


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