BRUISED AND BATTLE hardened versus sun-tanned and relaxed.
It’s the clear favourites, unbeaten in this competition since December 2010, against the side who scraped into the quarter-finals as eighth seeds thanks to an unlikely win from Connacht.
Most importantly though, It’s Leinster against Ulster; the most eagerly anticipated inter-provincial match since 2009.
Brian McLaughlin has stuck with 13 of the side which brought him through the semi-final against Edinburgh, with Paddy Jackson preferred to the departing Ian Humphreys at number 10 and Chris Henry returning from injury to the back row.
This will be McLaughlin’s final match in charge, with the former Auckland Blues boss Mark Anscombe set to take over the role next season. Speaking this week though, McLaughlin insisted that it is not a distraction for him.
“To be honest with you, it hasn’t really crossed my mind at all. The key thing is this weekend is that we get to Twickenham and do ourselves and the fans proud and we make sure that everybody has a super day. We’ll think about that there next week and the week after.”
Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt has also faced speculation over his future as the job at the Blues (his home province) is set to open up. The Kiwi has been able to recall his star backs, Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll. Both men sat out last weekend’s hard-hitting encounter with the Glasgow Warriors.
Centre, Eoin O’Malley, suffered a devastating knee ligament injury in that game, but the only injury absentee from Leinster’s first-choice side, as they target a third Heineken Cup in four years, is Luke Fitzgerald.
Schmidt described the choice of his replacement on the wing as a ‘headache’ between David Kearney and Fergus McFadden. The latter has been given the nod on the right wing, matched up against Craig Gilroy, while Isa Nacewa’s aerial prowess is shifted to the left in order to combat Andrew Trimble.
Eoin Reddan has been preferred to Isaac Boss at scrum-half, Schmidt’s favoured move when he really wants the ball fed to his back-line at speed.
“It’s the first time in my time, that both teams are going to be at full strength, or close to it.” Said McLaughlin, before calling on his players to repeat the performance which turned over Munster in Thomond Park rather than the nervous effort which saw them scrape past Edinburgh in the semi-final.
“I have no doubt that the players here are capable of playing at that level again and going one step further. They are a very talented bunch. These are the places they want to be and this is where they want to play their rugby, at the very top. If we want to regularly get to that top table then we’ve got to prove at Twickenham that we’re a quality side and we deserve to be there.”
Ulster’s set-piece at scrum and line-out has been a stand-out feature of their play this season and they will be bolstered by the return from suspension of John Afoa.
Leinster have made great strides in recent weeks to solve issues with their line-out, one kink in an otherwise flawless side. To that end, Kevin McLaughlin is preferred to Shane Jennings in the back-row. Leinster number eight Jamie Heaslip disagreed that the issue was down to the late-season arrival of Brad Thorn and Leo Cullen.
“I think Brad’s head was probably wrecked for the first week, 10 days trying to get the new calls.” Heaslip told TheScore.ie. “It’s hard to get a set of new calls blurred into the end of a long season, between the World Cup, going to Japan and coming to us. But I think he’s definitely up to speed with what we’re doing, he adds a lot to it.”
The man facing up to Thorn tomorrow, as he has done many times in the past, is the Ulster captain and former Springbok, who says this is as big a game as he has played in his career.
“I’ve played in the Super 14 final and the Currie Cup final and the World Cup final,” said Johann Muller, “but this I think this is right up there, if not the biggest. In the World Cup I was on the bench and only played every now and then.
“With this, it’s been a team effort and been involved in every single game. Obviously being captain of the side, this is something special.”
Ulster will have it all to do to overcome the reigning champions having not beaten Leinster since Schmidt took over the eastern province.
Leinster: R Kearney, McFadden, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Nacewa, Sexton, Reddan: Healy, Strauss, Ross; Cullen (capt), B Thorn, McLaughlin, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: Cronin, van der Merwe, White, Toner, Jennings, Boss, Madigan, D Kearney.
Ulster: Terblanche, Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Gilroy; Jackson, Pienaar: Court, Best, Afoa; Muller (capt), Tuohy; Ferris, Henry, Wannenburg.
Replacements: Brady, McAllister, Fitzpatrick, Stevenson, Faloon, Marshall, Humphreys, D’Arcy.
Referee: N Owens