Green giants bestride Twickenham
No end in sight for Irish domination in Europe thanks to a healthy provincial rugby system
Either Leinster or Ulster will complete Ireland's fifth Heineken Cup victory in seven seasons when they meet in the final at Twickenham next Saturday, and to do it in England's national stadium is bound to get up the nose of the Aviva Premiership clubs whose response is not to promise they will improve on the field but to agitate in the boardroom for the format of qualifying for Europe to be changed.
As Shane Jennings, the openside flanker who had two seasons in England with Leicester before returning home to share in Leinster's cup wins of 2009 and 2011, points out, a correct placing of the ball by Clermont Auvergne's Wesley Fofana in the semi-final two weeks ago might have sent the French club, not the Irish province, through to "the Twickenham takeover" as one Sky reporter has dubbed it. The London-based broadcaster – whose subscribers bankroll blanket coverage across the European competitions' six weekends of pool play and three knockout rounds – are putting a brave face on the absence of any English club from the Biarritz v Toulon Amlin Challenge Cup final at The Stoop on Friday evening, and Leinster meeting Ulster over the road the following day.
But to speak to Jennings, who is vying with Kevin McLaughlin and Sean O'Brien for the starting flanker spots against an Ulster side bolstered by a quartet of hard-nosed Springboks, or to Paul Wallace, the former Ireland prop now busy as a lucid and engaging TV pundit, is not to gain any sense of Irish cock-a-hoopery at this domination of the tournament which from 1996 to 2005 had four French winners and five from England.
The reason is that when the best of the provinces gather to represent Ireland, the results are less fulfilling. The World Cup quarter-final loss to Wales in New Zealand last October, and the 30-9 drubbing by an inexperienced England at Twickenham eight weeks ago, hurt the Irish, and winning the Heineken Cup will not make them travel to New Zealand for three Tests in June with spectacularly greater belief that they will achieve a first win over the All Blacks in 107 years of trying. The 2009 Grand Slam that appeared to mark the anointing of Ireland's so-called "golden generation" has not been backed up.
So there are two questions as the 2006 and 2008 champions Munster reflect on a season when they gave 10 players European debuts, and Leinster's peerless centre Brian O'Driscoll, now 33, spent the middle half of if resting from a shoulder operation. Are Ireland getting any closer to breaking the Sanzar nations' domination of the Test scene? And can their provinces keep their European record going given the country's comparatively meagre playing numbers?
"Leinster are fortunate to have a strong school and academy system turning out a lot of good players," says the 30-year-old Jennings. "I look round the dressing room and the age profile is quite varied. I see younger guys like Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan who are in incredible shape, and are developing well and developing quickly. Hopefully the older guys like myself, Leo Cullen, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian can teach them what we have learnt, which is just because you have made it into a squad, it doesn't mean you deserve to win anything.
"When you look at Ireland, it's right that good things are said aboutO'Driscoll and [Munster's 32-year-old lock] Paul O'Connell. But even the best players have to realise it's right for the new players to come through. I have no doubt the provinces will do that but with Ireland it's a balancing act."
Wallace picks out Leinster's fly-half Jonny Sexton and forwards Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy as examples of players in their mid-20s with the leadership skills to succeed O'Driscoll and Cullen. "Yes, you've got Munster who have been in decline and it's going to take them a year or two to turn it round," says the ex-Saracens and Leinster prop. "Paul O'Connell would be hard to replace for leadership but Donnacha Ryan is shaping up nicely. And I don't really buy into the 'golden generation' thing. When did it start and when does it finish? Really you are talking about Brian O'Driscoll, who was a one-off.
"I believe the generation ahead is going to be better. Leinster are not the poor man who is over achieving. The budget is there, they're getting the best of the imports and any English club would have loved to have snapped up Brad Thorn [the All Black lock who is on loan this season]. It's true that some of the Pro 12 league games are absolutely awful and there is an argument that if the league got any weaker it would impact badly on the provinces. But the Rob Kearneys and the Heaslips who have been 100 per cent professional since they left school have greater ability than those before them."
The Munster flanker Peter O'Mahony – voted Ireland's young player of the year last week – and Leinster fly-half Ian Madigan are exciting prospects. In the background no one is sure how the Irish RFU's non-Irish-eligible player policy will work out. Some see the apparent restrictions on foreigners as only a public-relations reaction to the World Cup exit. The Ulster playing director, David Humphreys, does concede the production line needs work.
"There are relatively few rugby players compared to England, France and Wales," Humphreys said before the quarter-final win in Munster
"There will be times when there aren't the same quality of players we've had over the last generation. [But] Leinster's academy system is bringing through endless numbers of players and that's what Ulster have got to strive to do. If we do that, then I believe the Irish system we work in is still the envy of the big unions."
The numbers game
The Amlin Opta Index of European statistics suggests Saturday's all-Irish Heineken Cup final at Twickenham will be a battle between Ulster's masters of defence and line-out and Leinster's attack. The index logs scoring actions and individual contributions in every European match, with weighting given to the time they occurred and the strength of the opposition.
Muller's a devil in the line-out
Ulster lead the way with second row and captain Johann Muller's line-out index score of 666 points and hooker Rory Best's 611pts placing them first and second for the season, well ahead of Saracens' Steve Borthwick on 474. Muller has won 49 line-outs, including three steals.
Red-hand gang make case for defence
Ulster and Leinster stand second and third with 10,124 and 9,155 defensive points respectively. However, the individual quality that got Ulster past Leicester in the pool stage, Munster in the quarter-finals and Edinburgh in the semi-final sees five of their men – Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy, Steve Ferris, Best and Muller – in the top 10 defensive players.
Kearney is leading the attack
Only Edinburgh flanker Netani Talei and Northampton full-back Ben Foden score higher on the average index points per match than Leinster's fly-half and playmaker, Jonny Sexton. The cup-holders' full-back, Rob Kearney, is top of the attackers with 740m from 91 carries in 624 minutes on the field: 1,914 points put him ahead of Talei and Harlequins full-back Mike Brown.
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