Date: 28th April 2012
Venue: Aviva Stadium
Referee: Romain Poite
Kick-off: 17:45 (BST)
After Ulster’s momentous victory over Munster in Thomond Park sealed their place in the semi-final, the eyes of Belfast have been firmly fixed on tomorrow’s game with Edinburgh. Such a distraction caused Brian McLaughlin’s side to lose their next two league matches, against Connacht and Leinster, but do not expect similar complacency tomorrow. For Ulster this marks their first semi-final appearance since 1999, and many will be keen to replicate the success they experienced that year – where they narrowly saw off Stade Francais in the semi before running out comfortable winners over Colomiers in the final.
The loss of talismanic prop John Afoa represents a big blow to Ulster’s chances, with the NZ international offering just as much of a threat in the loose as the tight. At the time of writing, there were still doubts over Paddy Wallace (migraine) and Pedrie Wannenburg’s (groin) fitness but the club were confident both could shrug off these concerns to start. Question marks still lie over the starting fly-half, with many believing Paddy Jackson’s start against Leinster a potential audition for a starting spot here. Ulster have triumphed over Edinburgh twice in the league this year, and that may just give them the psychological advantage.
For Edinburgh, this is another chance to make history after their superb victory over Toulouse saw them become the first ever Scottish side to reach a Heineken cup semi-final. Following a club record crowd of nearly 38,000 at Murrayfield, thousands of Edinburgh fans look set to cheer on their team again when they descend upon Dublin.
Edinburgh’s league campaign has been blighted by injury and national selection, and a 38-13 loss to Cardiff in their last league match represents a similar drop in form as Ulster, with both sides preferring to concentrate on Europe. Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley was Director of Rugby at Connacht for seven years, so should bring a wealth of expertise on their opponents on Saturday.
What to Expect:
Considering the occasion faced by both clubs, with an early evening kick-off ensuring the nerves build throughout the day, expect this to be a tie filled with passion and desire, but no less conservatism from both sides. Each place a huge weight of responsibility upon their kickers, and it is the control of the kicking game, as well as the control of the breakdown, that could prove key. Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar is the epitome of ruthlessness from the boot, as shown when he expertly kicked his side into an early lead against Munster, but it is the combination of this kicking alongside their threat from out wide, led by the powerful Andrew Trimble, that makes them such a threat when attacking. Defensively they were phenomenal against Munster; Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw must find a key to unlocking a defence that has been near impossible to breach at times.
Head to Head: Paddy Jackson v Greig Laidlaw
At the time of writing, Paddy Jackson’s selection as Ulster fly-half is yet to be confirmed, but following his solid audition for the place against Leinster it’s likely Jackson will face off against the Edinburgh captain and playmaker Greig Laidlaw. Laidlaw brilliantly controlled the quarter-final win over Toulouse and was justly rewarded with the man of the match for his efforts. While the back row battle will be key in this game, Laidlaw has been so pivotal for Edinburgh in their European run that his duel against Jackson will be keenly watched – especially with regard to the game plan of both sides.
All Eyes On: Ruan Pienaar & Netani Talei
It’s difficult to understate Pienaar’s importance to this Ulster side – and Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley admitted as such when he pinpointed the scrum-half as a huge threat. Munster gave away three penalties further than 50m from their try-line, gifting Pienaar and Ulster nine points, and Ulster must avoid similar imprecision. Pienaar will not only influence Ulster’s attack, but also Edinburgh’s, and Bradley’s side must be sure of when to attack and how they compete at the breakdown.
The Fijian back row Netani Talei has been phenomenal for Edinburgh, having already taken three man of the match awards in the competition. His performances have seen him nominated for the European Player of the Year – a nomination full endorsed by teammate Tim Visser in his The Rugby Blog column – and he will have a full test of his credentials against a fearsome back row tomorrow. Blindside Stephen Ferris is a world class flanker among a steely Ulster pack, but Talei, along with teammates David Denton and Ross Rennie, has the potential to put his team on the front foot.
With Edinburgh in unchartered territory and having accepted their underdog labels, it’s tempting to back them as the side to come out on top with nothing to lose. But if Ulster, and especially Pienaar, play to their best of their ability it’s difficult to see anything other than a victory for Brian McLoughlin’s side. Ulster by 9.
by Tom James