If you’re expecting a Nou Camp moment in rugby’s European Cup semi-finals this weekend, you’re likely to be disappointed, especially as far as the first of the Heineken Cup games, in Dublin on Saturday between Ulster and Edinburgh is concerned. The Scots pulled off the shock of this year’s competition in the previous round, when they beat the Barcelona of European rugby, Toulouse, the four-time Heineken Cup-winners, 19-14, with a dogged and determined piece of teamwork.
"The quarter-final win over Toulouse is the team's benchmark in terms of performance," Edinburgh captain Greig Laidlaw said this week. “That is our starting point.” Sadly for Laidlaw, you have to think that that performance was in fact his side’s high-water mark. Edinburgh are offered at 3.05 to win against Ulster, who are favourites at 1.38. Best value in this game may come from the possible margin of victory: a toss up between an Ulster win by 11-15 points (6.0) or 16-20 points (8.50).
Ulster come into this game off a fair old walloping at the weekend in the Celtic League game against Leinster, who play in Sunday’s semi against Clermont Auvergne. But since winning their quarter-final against Munster, the Ulstermen have clearly prioritised their season around the Heineken Cup. And if Pro12 games are anything to go by, then Ulster’s two wins over Edinburgh this season, 42-20 at Murrayfield in January, and then 38-16 at Ravenhill in March, suggest the real form line here.
In fairness, Edinburgh, one off the bottom of the Celtic League, have out-performed themselves on the European stage this season, with the likes of David Denton, their giant No8, growing in stature, match-by-match alongside a team bristling with Scottish internationals.
But when Laidlaw, the Scotland half-back, leads his men out on Saturday at Lansdowne Road, they will face a formidable fusion of Irish and South African opposition and a vocal roar from Belfast from an estimated 35,000 fans in the 50,000-seat Aviva Stadium.
Ulster have got their “Famous Five” back to play this Saturday, although the quintet of Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa, Pedrie Wannenburg and Stefan Terblanche would never be recognised by Enid Blyton.
Scrum-half and penalty kicker Pienaar will be a key figure on Saturday. In a match which is sure to be edgy, where inevitable errors will lead to penalties, he may yet turn out to be the leading points scorer as he acts yet again as the fulcrum of Brian McLaughlin's side march on their first Heineken Cup final since they won the trophy in 1999.
It’s all very well Laidlaw saying this week that, “I am quite happy for us to be the underdogs – just look at what has happened in the tournament so far”, because it won’t be his money punters will be using if they opt to back Edinburgh.
And the 21-25-point win for Ulster, offered at 12.00. Well, two wins by 22 points this season might well steer you in that direction, but Edinburgh have got to the last four on merit, and it is fair to expect them to raise their game sufficiently to keep things tighter, at least through the first 40 minutes. But expect Ulster to be ahead by half-time, and to win by 16-20pts.