Rabo Pro 12 Final, Ulster Rugby Latest, Leinster Rugby, Andrew Trimble
Irish rugby finds itself in the ideal situation; three provinces consistently operating at the business end of Europe and the Rabo Pro 12 league.
That’s not enough for Ulster. If they lose Saturday’s league final, they will feel like the third child yet again. Leinster have won a trophy, while Munster, against all odds, almost made the Heineken Cup final.
What do Ulster have to show for going to Thomond Park and winning a European quarter-final last year or being the only team to beat Leinster at the RDS this season?
Belief, maybe. Nothing tangible. Andrew Trimble knows better than most that they must do it all over again on Saturday.
“It took every single bit of what we had in us to get over the line at the RDS (in March),” said Trimble. “Leinster have performed in big games like this week in, week out for a long time. We got to get that consistency, we’ve got to back it up.”
Leinster destroyed them when it really mattered, in last year’s final at Twickenham, while Saracens did something similar at the same venue in the quarter-final last month.
That was as bad as Ulster have been in about three years, unforced errors ruining any chance of living with the English club’s huge South African forwards.
“It just wasn’t a reflection of us at all,” Trimble continued. “We didn’t approach the game the way we wanted or anticipated they were going to play the way they did. Saracens are a tough side to express yourself against and play against with any kind of width. They really shut us down and wrecked any gameplan that we had.
“If we hadn’t been able to move on, being in such a great position in the Rabo, it would’ve been a really tough defeat to take. This gave us something to go after.”
That brings more pressure still, because failure now will taint Mark Anscombe’s first season as head coach.
“We had a massive run there at the start of the season, stuttered around the Six Nations then we came back and hit form again after beating Leinster down in the RDS.
“But there is no point doing what we did this season, accomplishing all those small goals unless we have something to show for it. People are talking about us being the best Ulster side in a few years and that’s great but we need to back that up.”
Anscombe has proved a good fit for Ulster, and especially for Trimble, who responded to being exiled from Ireland camp by running in a personal best of 12 tries for his province.
The reward has been a recall by Les Kiss for the North American tour next month.
Was he worried, despite being only 28 that the international ship had sailed? “No, I certainly don’t think it is over. I’ve been in this position before and I have bounced back. I will do the same again. I was delighted to find out I was picked.”
The natural wheeling pace of Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and even Andrew Conway will always make it tough for Trimble, more the Shane Horgan-type winger than a Denis Hickie, to break into an Ireland team that promises to play a pacy, counter-attacking style under the Kiss-Joe Schmidt ticket.
That said, Trimble’s form instantly improved when faced with the prospect of not being considered an international rugby player.
“I would agree with that. I am quite competitive and I want to make the most of any opportunities I do get. They have been few and far between this year, in a green shirt that is, but fortunately I’ve been able to really commit to Ulster.
“I haven’t been too concerned about going up and down the road too much so I have put everything into it, and it’s been good for me,”
He’ll be going down that same road to Dublin as a confrontational Ulster man this weekend. Trimble, again, much like Horgan before him in Leinster, epitomises all the good traits of an Ulster player.
He looks at how Leinster evolved and uses it as motivation to drive Ulster down the same path. “I think this weekend will go a long way to showing how far we are away from the standard Leinster have set.
“You can have one off big performances but having beaten them twice this year, and if we manage to get over the line and beat them a third time in a final it would show we are kicking on. It’s such a big challenge, similar to Munster in Thomond Park two years ago.
“It’s a chance to lay claim to being the best side in Ireland.”
Everyone ready? We know Trimble is.
Rabo Direct Pro 12 Final 2013, Leinster rugby, Ulster Rugby, Joe Schmidt, Mark Anscombe
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This being the last week of the domestic season, mind games between the rival New Zealand coaches, desperate to capture the Rabo Direct Pro 12 title, go up a notch.
For Joe Schmidt it’s about leaving Leinster without the stain of three consecutive runner-up finishes in league finals. That would represent the only black mark in an otherwise phenomenal tenure.
For Mark Anscombe it’s about backing up Ulster’s perfect start to a campaign, which faltered during the illogical international window and was almost ruined by a chronically overcrowded infirmary.
This week his only concern is All Black tighthead prop John Afoa’s hamstring.
“Yeah, he’s progressing nicely,” said Anscombe. “It’s not a tear, just a slight strain, just been niggling and in the position he plays you got to be careful it doesn’t go.”
Leinster also refuse to rule Seán O’Brien out of contention, despite a knee injury that prompted British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland to say on Monday his club season was over.
Gatland went so far as to state O’Brien would be doing well to be fit for the Queensland Reds game on June 8th. And that he would be in Lions camp henceforth.
Those comments angered the Leinster machine. Sure enough, late Monday night we got the following “update” from the Lions after “consultation” with Leinster: “Given the proximity to the tour we are grateful to Leinster for being able to assess Seán. He is in better condition than we thought and he continues his recovery at pace.”
With nothing definitive conjecture reigns. Afoa is expected to play, O’Brien is not. Either that’s the case or Gatland was telling fibs. But why would he?
All told, it left a bad taste in the mouth.
Chris Henry is expected to recover from a knee strain/knock to start Saturday but Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy have been put on ice due to a triple-concussion and a groin strain respectively.
Expect Afoa to be added to the starting XV that beat the Scarlets 28-17 on May 10th, with Declan Fitzpatrick making way.
Iain Henderson will probably be benched as Anscombe goes with Robbie Diack on the blindside and Dan Tuohy partnering Johann Muller in the secondrow.
Ulster’s impact options look inferior to Leinster’s, although Henderson and scrumhalf Paul Marshall can arrive if more urgency is demanded.
Brian O’Driscoll will return after recovering from a back spasm.
“Yeah, yeah I’m feeling miles better this week,” he told the Second Captains podcast on irishtimes.com. “At a push I could have played on Friday but with this coming up and the next six weeks I would hopeful I will be in good shape to take the pitch.”
O’Driscoll left us in no doubt about Leinster’s feeling of unfinished business. “The previous year against Munster when we won the Heineken the week before I think we just got out played but I think we threw it away last year (against the Ospreys). It really took the gloss off winning back to back Heineken Cups. I hope we are going to use that hurt.”
On the flip side, Anscombe’s men will use an even fresher open wound.
Their comprehensive Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens in Twickenham on April 6th stalled any talk of Ulster progress.
They didn’t make any, but there were plenty of excuses. Muller tore his bicep in the opening minutes, Afoa had just come off a long haul flight, Marshall was knocked out for the third time in a month and Tommy Bowe wasn’t fit enough to start.
“If we had the preparation we’ve had this week I would have been a lot happier going into the Saracens game,” said Anscombe. “We’ve got no excuses, if we don’t do the job Saturday we will have been beaten by the better team.”
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