After 22 rounds and two play-off games, the 2012/13 Pro12 season wraps up on Saturday with the Final at the Royal Dublin Society. It is, appropriately, between first and second seeds, Ulster and Leinster.
European Challenge Cup holders Leinster have made it through to their fourth straight Pro12 Final, but have yet to win one – although they were champions in the inaugural season, 2001/02 and again in 2007/08.
For Ulster it will be the first opportunity to compete for the title through a play-off, having last taken the crown in 2006.
Tommy Bowe believes Ulster couldn’t ask to be in a better place ahead of the Final.
The Ireland wing is hoping to mark his return to Ulster this season in style as he takes to the RDS field on Saturday to tackle Leinster in their own back yard.
This might seem like a daunting task but Bowe has previous against the province, having scored a try against them for the Ospreys in the competition’s first-ever play-off at the RDS back in 2010 – ruining then-coach Michael Cheika’s final game in charge.
Last year Bowe was a spectator as Ospreys upstaged Leinster in the Final at the same venue and the 29-year-old is hoping for more of the same this time around in Ulster colours.
“It’s a difficult proposition; everybody knows that to beat Leinster anywhere is tough but to beat them in their own back yard is going to be extremely difficult,” Bowe told the Belfast Telegraph.
“But Ulster have played some great rugby this year. We had a bit of a dip in the middle of the season, but we’re back, feeling confident, playing some good rugby and looking dangerous.
“I don’t think we could be in a better way going into this match.”
In the three previous play-off finals the top seeds have become champions just once, when Munster defeated Leinster 19-9 at Thomond Park in 2011.
In the other two finals, both held at the RDS, that season’s top seeds Leinster were defeated by the second placed team, Ospreys.
No team that finished lower than second in the table during the regular season has ever lifted the title.
Ulster, who finished on top of the Pro12 table this season, attempt to become only the second number one seed to win the play-off Final after Munster in 2010/11.
The Ulstermen have won their last five Pro12 fixtures since their 8-14 reversal at Edinburgh on 22 March.
Ulster have won two of the three previous finals they have contested in all competitions, one of those being played in Dublin – the 1999 European Cup Final at the old Lansdowne Road beating Colomiers 21-6.
Ulster are aiming for a second PRO12 crown, the previous one being gained in 2005/06, before the introduction of the play-offs.
Leinster became only the second PRO12 side to win the European Challenge Cup after Cardiff Blues in 2009/10 when they beat Stade Francais at the RDS on Friday.
The Leinstermen’s only loss in their last 17 encounters in all tournaments since 21 December was 18-22 to Ulster at the RDS in the Pro12 on 30 March.
This is Leinster’s fourth successive PRO12 Final, but they are yet to actually win one. This is in marked contrast to their form in ERC finals where they have a played four, won four record!
Leinster have lost just once at the RDS in any tournament this season, to Ulster in round 19 of the PRO12.
Ulster achieved a league double over Leinster for the first time this season, including a first ever victory at the RDS.
Leinster, however, won the only previous Final the two have contested: 42-14 in at last season’s European Cup Final at Twickenham.
In the event of a tie:
In the event of a tie at full time in a Pro12 Final then extra-time will be played, consisting of two periods, each of 10 minutes. If the score is still tied after extra-time, the Team that has scored the most tries in the match will be deemed the winner. If the Teams are still tied on points and tries at the end of extra-time then the winner will be determined by a Place Kick Competition. In the event that a Place Kick Competition is required, each Team will nominate three goal kickers who will take six place kicks between them from different positions along the twenty-two metre and ten metre lines. The Team with the most place kicks scored will be the winner. If the Teams are tied at the end of their six kicks, then sudden death will apply. Only players in the playing area at the final whistle of extra-time may be nominated for the Place Kick Competition. No substituted players or players who have been shown a red card may take part at any time including any player who has received a yellow card and who remains in the sin bin at the time of the final whistle of extra-time.
Players to watch:
For Leinster: Their British and Irish Lions tour contingent will obviously run the risk of injury and may hold back – the likes of fullback Rob Kearney, centre Brian O’Driscoll, flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, prop Cian Healy, as well as back row forward Jamie Heaslip.
For Ulster: It all starts with their South African contingent – captain Johann Muller, veteran Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, who may well earn himself a recall to SA’s national team, and loose forward Robbie Diack. There is powerful wing Tommy Bowe, who is the only Ulster representative in the British and Irish Lions squad, while hooker Rory Best may want to make a statement after missing out on selection for the Lions’ tour squad to Australia.
Head to head: There is still a late fitness test to come, but if Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster) is clear to play he can expect a stern test from Darren Cave (Ulster). However, the most exciting showdown may well be at flyhalf, where Lions tourist Johnny Sexton (Leinster) will come up against Paddy Jackson (Ulster) in a battle that will crucial to the outcome of the game. Ireland hookers Richardt Strauss (Leinster) and Rory Best (Ulster) could also produce some fireworks.
2011: Leinster won 34-26, RDS
2011: Leinster won 42-13, RDS
2011: Leinster won 18-3, RDS (semifinal)
2012: Leinster won 16-8, (Ravenhill
2012: Ulster won 27-19, Ravenhill
2013: Ulster won 22-18, RDS
Prediction: There is not much to choose between the two sides and even Irish bookmakers are having a tough time separating them. Home ground advantage could have an influence, but Ulster’s South African contingent may have more motivation than Leinster’s Lions clan – who may want to avoid injury and as a result miss out on the tour. We feel Ulster will sneak the Final, by less than 10 points.
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (captain), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Michael Allen, 23 Peter Nelson.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Ian Madigan, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Leo Cullen (captain), 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 John Cooney, 22 Andrew Goodman, 23 Andrew Conway.
Date: Saturday 25 May
Venue: RDS, Dublin
Kick-off: 16:45 British Summer Time (15:45 GMT, 17:45 SA Time)
Expected weather: Light rain expected on Saturday night, so it may well be a ‘dry’ match. High of 15°C, low of 10°C
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy, Peter Fitzgibbon (both Ireland)
TMO: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)