On a surprisingly sunny day in Dublin at the start of this week, the talk of the town was already heavily swaying towards thoughts of Twickenham and Saturday’s Heineken Cup Final. With the two Irish giants Ulster and Leinster set to fight it out this weekend to become European champions, it only made sense to travel to across the Irish Sea and speak with the Sky Sports panel to get their views.
(L-R: Tyrone Howe, Dewi Morris, TRB Editor Ben Coles, Stuart Barnes, Paul Wallace and St. Michael’s captain Dan Leavy at St. Michael’s College in Dublin)
In truth, when asked for predictions for this weekend, the result was an uneven split. Former Ulster and Ireland winger Tyrone Howe backed his former side to sneak home by a minimal margin, but the more intriguing argument was his view on the side’s future. Head coach Brian McLaughlin is being moved to look after the academy next season, with Kiwi coach Mark Anscombe coming in to take over the side. With Ulster performing outstandingly well in this season’s Heineken Cup, the club in Howe’s view face an uneasy situation.
“If I was the coach coming in and I was watching the games back in New Zealand, I’d be looking at the performances and thinking; ‘Oh s***’, because if they win it he’ll be coming to coach a side on a high. Things can only get worse from being European champions, leaving him in a difficult position. McLaughlin has handled the situation brilliantly and there’s a lot of affection towards him from the Ulster faithful.”
For Howe, the move to bring in Anscombe however represents a chance to develop the academy products coming through, so that the money no longer needs to spent on overseas stars. Also, by bringing in a new coach after winning a European Cup, the club would be mimicking Leinster’s move from 2009 when Michael Chieka was replaced by Joe Schmidt. Under Schmidt the club reached another European semi-final, before coming back to win last year’s final in dramatic fashion. In doing so, they have gone form being Heineken Cup winners, to becoming possibly the greatest European team of all time in the eyes of Stuart Barnes.
“Leinster are clear favourites. They should be clear favourites and they also should win this game. A lot rides on the selection at scrum-half, because I believe for both club and country Johnny Sexton plays better when he has Eoin Reddan alongside him.”
Ulster’s half-back selection is also crucial for Barnes, with McLaughlin forced to decide between promising Paddy Jackson or London Irish bound Ian Humphries at fly-half. “If I was an Ulster fan and Jackson started at 10, I would be worried. Humphries might have missed the Edinburgh game and played terribly against Munster in the quarter-final, but I don’t think Ruan Pienaar can carry a kid along with him in a game as big as this if that kid starts to crumble. Pienaar is such an important player with his tactical awareness and you expect him to make those breaks such as the one against Edinburgh because he is that good.”
Former Munster prop Paul Wallace is another of the team to recognise the enormity of what Leinster could achieve this weekend, citing that the winning mentality they have created over the last few seasons can be credited not just to the work of Schmidt, but also Leicester Tigers. “I think when Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings came back from Leicester they brought an awful lot back with them. They have taken a lot of that Leicester mentality and brought it into Leinster. Of all the guys that I have played with Leo is up there with some of the smartest rugby brains that I have ever played with. Other players have realised they are doing something special – the Brad Thorns of this world don’t just come here for the weather.”
The likes of Thorn, Pienaar, Brian O’Driscoll and Pedrie Wannenburg and the rest will all make Saturday’s final essential viewing. Frankly, it cannot come soon enough.
by Ben Coles
Saturday is Day of Destiny on Sky Sports, featuring over 40 hours of live sport in HD in one day, including the Heineken Cup Final live on Sky Sports 3 HD and Sky 3D from 16.30.