With a gap in Six Nations action, rugby correspondent Sam Harrison rounds up the action from week 15 of the Aviva PremiershipWritten by Sam Harrison on 23rd February 2017
Heineken Cup preview: Leinster favourites to triumph over Ulster
Fraser Kesteven expects Leinster to claim their third win in four years when the two sides meet on Saturday...
Leinster go into this weekend’s Heineken Cup final with the realistic prospect of winning their third European title in four years. Such a feat would cement their status as Europe’s best and position them nicely to complete the double when challenging Ospreys for the domestic honours. If this could be achieved, as it most conceivably should, it will be thoroughly deserved and prove a fitting acknowledgement to the dominance they have shown over recent seasons . On their way to the final Leinster have scored a total of 225 points, a large amount that has been gained through their incredible attacking prowess. Indeed, with a squad boasting the likes of Eoin Reddan, Jonny Sexton, and Gordon Darcy, it is unsurprising that they have proven adept at accumulating such high scores in abundance.
Despite not having their talisman Brian O'Driscoll available for much of this tournament, Leinster possess a veritable plethora of strike runners, of which Luke Fitzgerald is the most prominent. This superiority in attack is not just exclusive to European games, with Leinster being the highest scorers in the RaboDirect Pro12, where they are the only team to have amassed more than 500 points, with 568 being their specific total. It is difficult to comprehend their opponents containing this offensive potency, and it seems likely that a preponderent Leinster will run them ragged.
Yet, the foundations on which their offensive dominance has been predicated are the solid displays their forwards have produced throughout the competition. The strong front row partnership of Healy, Strauss and Ross has remained sturdy throughout scrum time and provides powerful runners within loose play. Behind these is the experience of former All Black Brad Thorn and club captain Leo Cullen, who together have shown that Leinster possess an abrasive second row pairing with the ability to frequently intimidate the opposition. This in addition to the dynamism and malleability of the back row which, with confrontational players such as Sean O'Brian, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, is able to provide a decent platform from which to base their strategy. This is certainly the most powerful scrum in European rugby and it is more than likely that their usual dominance will persist.
However, they will first have to beat Ulster, who have surprised many on reaching the final. Having beaten some of the great European behemoths in this season's tournament, with Clermont Auvergne and Munster being the most prominent examples, Ulster will have to beat the greatest of them all if they are to win the title for the second time. This, though considerably unlikely, is not entirely implausible, and they will once again have to provide a monstrous performance if they have any hope of triumphing. Without possessing the superstar names of Leinster, the Northern Irishmen will have to rely upon the hard work and determination that has seen them through this year's competition. This will be most applicable to their obstinate defence which, marshalled by the Herculian efforts of Stephen Ferris, has provided a solid platform from which to mount their offense.
Whilst playing with 14 men against Munster, for example, this defensive intransigence consolidated their already positive position and made it difficult for the opponents to create sustainable attempts for points. This defensive organisation makes it easier for them to win penalties, which are usually dispatched by the incredible proficiency of Ruan Pienaar's goal kicking. Indeed, with a range that may well extend to past 60 metres, the Ulster scrum-half’s kicking ability may well prove the difference.
Leinster are favourites and are well placed to claim the Heineken Cup title once again. The dominance they have shown both domestically and in Europe means that it is difficult to foresee a situation whereby their opponents Ulster triumph. Indeed, if this unlikely event is to occur it will have to be through an immense performance of monumental proportions, especially in light of Leinster's seeming impenetrability of late. The supremacy that Leinster currently enjoy means that the fate of this year's competition is largely in their hands, and their reign as European champions is set to continue.