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Ulster v Leinster: 3 key battles that will decide tonight's Pro12 Grand Final

It’s the end of a long, hard season. Time to put a shine on it.

Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

John Afoa v Cian Healy

PERHAPS MORE THAN any other player, John Afoa has turned Ulster from a competitive yet inconsistent force, to a true power of European rugby.

By transforming the scrum from scratchy to scary, Ulster have a foundation from which all else is possible. When you can set your watch by the scrum, the back-row and the young inventive backs suddenly have freedom to wreak havoc.

Cian Healy’s final duty before heading to Hong Kong will be disrupt the Kiwi at every set-piece. He is certainly capable of that.

On the other side, Mike Ross and Tom Court will renew hostilities, but on a dry night scrums may prove to be scarce. So Ulster may well be able to reap the benefit of having three front rows who relish the loose side of the game.

Chris Henry v Shane Jennings

On Thursday, Jono Gibbes didn’t skip a beat when he was asked the key to Ulster’s success at the breakdown.He spoke in glowing terms of Chris Henry’s transformation from a solid number eight to a class openside.

Hours later, Sean O’Brien mentioned an ability to get away with ‘cheating’. There was no malice in his voice, just a refreshing honest that that is what both sides will aim for.

O’Brien’s injury in the Amlin final does allow Leinster to go like-for-like with Shane Jennings playing groundhog, but O’Brien’s sheer immovability makes him a weapon that will be missed when Leinster look for quick ball.

Throw in the form of Robbie Diack and Nick Williams occupying Jamie Heaslip, then you have the makings of a six-man brawl that will decide the outcome of the league title.

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Ruan Pienaar v Isaac Boss

You can pick almost any head-to-head in the back-lines and begin to salivate at the prospect. However for Ulster to win, Ruan Pienaar must kick his goals.

The Springbok is more than just a kicking tee, though. He dictates so much of Ulster’s play, turning screws when they are on the front foot, loosening everything up when his back are going the wrong way.

Leinster may be in the home dressing room tonight, but Joe Schmidt has selected his ‘away’ scrum-half. Having lost both encounters this season you fancy he would have selected Isaac Boss over Eoin Reddan even if the Limerick man was fit and well.

Boss will be asked to work as a ninth forward; biting and snapping towards Pienaar the millisecond the ball appears from the breakdown.

If The South African can be shut down, then Ulster’s aim of filling the middle lanes with ball-carriers and have Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe running trailers behind Nick Williams or Robbie Diack will be dealt a blow.

Leinster will prefer to add width where possible, opening up gaps for Jonathan Sexton, Ian Madigan or Rob Kearney to step into.

Whatever happens, we’re in for another terrific All-Irish final to the league season.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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