I have wracked my brains and thought about this weekend’s match against Edinburgh up and down, and the more I think of it, the more ‘fearty’ I become.
The reason? I cannot conceive of any way that Ulster can lose, and it is an uncomfortable, unnerving and unaccustomed feeling…
Edinburgh are only being kept off the foot of the Pro12 table by (now defunct) Aironi, and fully 8 points adrift of the third-last side, the Dragons, and 10 points behind Connacht who have by no means had a great season. They have conceded 62 tries in the league this season – the worst in the league and 10 more than the next-worst (Aironi and Treviso). Their league form has been dire, with just one win in the last 11 fixtures – including a fairly recent BP thumping by Ulster. In the last two league games they have shipped 14 tries against Leinster (reserves) and Cardiff – in fairness it was a shadow side that went down to Cardiff, but the team selected against Leinster contained the core of their first team – Jones, de Luca, Visser, Laidlaw, Talei, Ford, Cross, Grant, Talei… They aren’t a side that Ulster fear. This year’s aggregate score across the two fixtures is 80-36, with Ulster racking up 10 tries.
35,000 or more noisy Ulster fans will pack the Aviva, with Edinburgh supporters numbering maybe 5,000 – and even if the proportions were switched, my money would be on the Ulster fans making more noise, with the Edinburgh fans being a rather sedate bunch.
Notwithstanding the suspension of Afoa, Ulster are considerably stronger on paper; in a combined XV I’d say not many outside Rennie and Visser, and maybe Denton, would have much of a claim.
So – Ulster will be the better side, with home advantage, and hugely more numerous and vocal supporters; what can possibly ‘gang agley’???
Well let’s play devil’s advocate. Yes, Edinburgh have had a poor season in the league, but in truth they are a better side than the league table would have you believe. Michael Bradley can count himself a lucky man, because in the absence of their surge in the Heineken Cup, I imagine serious questions would be being asked about his first season in charge.
Yes, Ulster have won the two previous meetings this season hands down, but on neither occasion did Denton or Rennie feature for Edinburgh – both had outstanding Six Nations campaigns for Scotland, and are key players for Edinburgh. On the other hand, Ulster will definitely miss Afoa, notwithstanding that Fitzpatrick and Macklin showed against Leinster that they can hold the fort pretty well in his absence.
And yes, Ulster are at home and will be clear favourites – but Edinburgh will be delighted about that. Look at their HEC campaign, they qualified due to two unlikely away victories, picking the pockets of both London Irish and Racing Metro, and then doing a job on Toulouse in the quarter, seemingly against the odds. They thrive on opposition complacency, and clearly in spite of their league form, knock-out rugby has agreed with them this year – they have shown great reserves of bottle when they have needed it. They will be delighted that Ulster are viewed as strong favourites, and that supporters like me are writing that Ulster will definitely win!
Listen – Ulster will win on Saturday. Will I look back at this on Saturday evening, reflecting how pride comes before a fall, and taking scant satisfaction that at least I didn’t buy tickets for the final? I don’t think so, but until I do a last double-check of the scoreboard and the clock goes red, I’ll still be a little bit ‘frit’!!