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Heineken Cup Final
Leinster Rugby vs Northampton Saints
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Saturday, 15 May 2011, 17:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 1, Highlights RTE 2 21:00

So here we go again. Two years after Leinster won the Heineken Cup for the first time on a glorious day in Murrayfield, they will attempt to become only the fifth club to win it more than once. Their opponents Northampton will also be looking for their second trophy and the chance to join an elite group comprised of Toulouse, Leicester, Wasps and Munster.

Leinster's journey to Cardiff started on a bright Saturday October afternoon at the RDS. The home fans were apprehensive about facing into what was possibly the toughest pool in the tournament's history against Clermont, Saracens and Racing Metro. Leinster hadn't enjoyed a good start to the season under their new coach Joe Schmidt, losing three of their first four games. However a win against Munster the previous week had lifted their spirits. Racing Metro arrived in town with a big pack led by their talisman Sebastien Chabal. They made it clear how they planned to target the Leinster scrum. But Mike Ross and the Leinster pack held firm and Chabal was put on his arse by Isa Nacewa, not once but twice! It was the foundation of a great five-tries-to-one win and Leinster were off to a fantastic start.

Next was a trip to Wembley Stadium where they took on up and coming English team Saracens in front of 45,000 spectators. The travelling Leinster support made loads of noise, partly to drown out Right Said Fred's torturous anthem Stand up for the Saracens. Jonny Sexton scored all the Leinster points in a virtuoso display but the most memorable thing about the game was the thrilling climax. Leading by only two points and with referee Christophe Berdos penalising them every time they tried to compete for the ball, Leinster knew they couldn't risk anything. So for the final four minutes they just tackled, rolled away and got up and did it again. It was a stunning piece of game management and after 24 exhausting phases, Saracens knocked on and it was game over. Those last four minutes made Leinster fans think that this season could just be something special.

Things didn't get any easier though with a double header against the French champions Clermont Auvergne. First up was a daunting trip to the heady atmosphere of the Stade Marcel-Michelin and injuries sustained in Ireland's autumn campaign meant they had to do it without three Lions in Luke Fitzgerald, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney. A fourth Lion, Jamie Heaslip, got injured in the first half to make things worse but their young replacements Fergus McFadden, Eoin O'Malley and Dominic Ryan all played like heroes. They played some fantastic attacking rugby and though they lost, they left with a precious bonus point and looked the happier of the two teams at the final whistle.

The bonus point would only mean something if they won the following week though. In a packed but freezing Aviva Stadium, they put in their best performance of the season as they simply demolished Clermont. Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll had made miraculous recoveries to play and with Cian Healy chipping in with two tries, they won comfortably. There was even some moaning about them not scoring a four-try bonus point but that would have been greedy. They won the head to head battle against their biggest rivals in the pool and now were fully in control of their destiny.

They rounded off the pool with thumping wins in their final two matches, scoring six tries at home to Saracens and five away to Racing Metro. This gave them a home draw in the quarter-finals against their old rivals, the Leicester Tigers. In a relentlessly tense match, Leinster were the better team but were struggling to take their chances to pull away from a tenacious Tigers outfit. Eventually a sublime Isa Nacewa try made the breakthrough and Leinster held on through their excellent defence.

Next up with a rematch against Toulouse who beat them in last season's semi-final. In front of another full house at the Aviva, they got off to a terrible start but recovered to win a fantastic match. Leinster's performance wasn't as fluent as at other times this season but they won the game out of sheer will and Toulouse's respect after the game was noteworthy. So it's been a fantastic journey so far but Leinster know it will only matter if they complete the job this Saturday and Northampton are standing in their way.

Northampton won the Heineken Cup back in 2000, when they defeated Munster in a final in Twickenham having gone in as under-dogs (something they'll see as a good omen). Their only ever competitive meetings against Leinster came in the pool stages of the following season's tournament. Leinster won a scrappy match 14-8 in Franklin's Gardens before winning 40-31 in a thriller in the return match in Donnybrook.

Since those games the two clubs have avoided each other in European competition until now. In that ten years Northampton have had their ups and downs. After the Heineken Cup triumph they began to slide down the table over the following seasons and eventually they were relegated in 2007. In a way it turned out to be a blessing in disguise though as the year in National League 1 allowed them to clear out a lot of dead wood and start again with a young team. Jim Mallinder came in as Director of Rugby and Dorian West came in as forwards coach. They made an important acquisition from Wigan Rugby League in 20-year old winger Chris Ashton. They won promotion at a canter with Ashton scoring 41 tries in 28 games.

In their first season back in the Premiership they finished in mid-table but won the European Challenge Cup, meaning they qualified for the Heineken Cup. Last season they beat Munster in the pool stage of the Heineken before losing to the same opponents in the quarter-finals. They finished second in the Premiership table but lost to Saracens in the play-offs. This season they finished fourth in the Premiership but lost a bruising semi-final to bitter local rivals Leicester Tigers last weekend. That game was dominated by an incident in which Tigers centre Manu Tuilagi punched Ashton three times. It happened in view of a touch judge who somehow recommended a yellow card for each player instead of the straight red it should have been for Tuilagi. In fairness to Ashton, despite taking a real haymaker of a third punch, he didn't go down, proving that he's a strong chin if nothing else.

It was a brutally fought match that will have hurt the Saints in more ways than one but it means they can now focus all their attention on the final on Saturday. After winning all their pool matches, winning on Saturday will make them the first team to go unbeaten through the tournament since the format went to home and away in the group stages back in 1997.

Ashton is undoubtedly their star man and he's become a world-class finisher and an England regular. He runs superb trailing lines to score most of his tries and he works well in the back three with England colleague Ben Foden. Foden arrived from Sale a few seasons back wanting to play at scrum-half but he's turned into an excellent full-back, particularly as a counter attacker. Bruce Reihana or Paul Diggin will take the spot on the left wing. Former All Black Reihana is a class act who would love to start his last match before retirement but Jim Mallinder may opt for Diggin, a small winger with an eye for the try-line who's something of a local hero.

Dublin-born James Downey plays alongside the under-rated Jon Clarke in the centre. Downey started his career in Leinster before having spells in Connacht, Munster and Calvisano. He arrived in Northampton during their season in the National League and was probably thought of as a short-term player to help get them promoted. However he endeared himself to the club with his direct, selfless style and has now made himself a fixture in the side. He's a big defensive leader and his hands are better than he's given credit for. He works well with Clarke who's another big, powerful runner. No one will be more motivated than Downey to put one over on his old team.

At scrum-half Lee Dickson has had an excellent season and it's surely only a matter of time before he's capped by England. They tried Shane Geraghty at out-half at the start of the season, but his kicking wasn't reliable enough and so Stephen Myler reclaimed his place. Myler is not as good a runner as Geraghty but he's a steady hand and his style suits their overall gameplan as their team is really built around their massive pack.

Tongan Soane Tonga'uiha, England's Dylan Hartley and South African Brian Mujati make up their fearsome front row. They're a terrific scrummaging unit who are also massively influential in the loose scoring 12 tries between them this season. Hartley captains the team and the Kiwi born hooker is an abrasive operator who seems to revel in being despised by opposition fans. Former Springbok tight head Mujati has grown into an integral part of the team, so much so that Scotland and Lions tight-head Euan Murray was deemed surplus to requirements halfway through the season. Their loose head Tonga'uiha is the star though, the only Northampton player nominated for ERC player of the year. At 6'3'' tall and nearly 21 stone, he's a huge man but he carries the ball at pace and offloads beautifully. However his scrummaging has improved massively since he arrived and it's now a major part of their weaponry.

Courtney Lawes is another England international in the second row. A fantastic athlete, he's another player who fancied himself as a hard-nut in his early career. He's matured this season though and has added real awareness at the lineout to his proven skills in the loose. Former Sale Sharks second row Christian Day is an under-rated but useful partner in the engine room. In the back row former Ulster player and Ireland international Roger Wilson has established himself at number eight. He'll be itching to remind Ireland coach Declan Kidney of what he can do. On the flank Phil Dowson is another abrasive character but is also a useful and intelligent footballer.

The Saints would love to have England International Tom Wood on the other flank but injury has ruled him out. 21-year-old Calum Clark is a decent replacement but the Saints will badly miss Wood, who was voted Aviva Premiership player of the season during the week. It's a fine first fifteen but Geraghty and Scottish international Joe Ansbro apart, their bench isn't that well known. This lack of strength in depth cost them during the Six Nations when they lost five out of six games in that time. It could be a problem for them come the sixty-minute mark especially considering the strength of the Leinster bench.

For Leinster the build-up to the match has been clouded by the injury worries. In last week's Magners League semi-final Ulster provided bruising opposition and at times it resembled The Battle of the Somme will all the Leinster "fallen" leaving the pitch. In the aftermath most of the substitutions were described as precautionary but there are still worries over the knocks taken by Richardt Strauss and Brian O'Driscoll. Strauss took a bang on the hip and as hooker is one of the few positions Leinster don't have proven cover, there was obviously a lot of concern. However as the week has progressed things are looking more promising for the South African. The knee injury sustained by O'Driscoll looks more troublesome though. Knowing him as we do, he'll do everything possible to get on the field. He'll probably be named in the team regardless, but we won't know if he'll actually play until he runs onto the field.

Despite the injuries, the match against Ulster was perfect preparation for taking on an attritional team like Northampton. As predicted Ulster had learned from the previous two meetings in the season and were a lot cuter at the breakdown not letting Leinster get out of the blocks early. Leinster were always in control of the match though in a display based on another excellent defensive effort that was so disciplined they didn't allow Ulster a kick at goal in their own half. Like playing Munster before the quarter-final against Leicester, Joe Schmidt will hope the match will have hardened his lads for what's coming this Saturday.

Assuming he has a full strength panel to choose from (bar the unfortunate Rob Kearney of course) then there's really just four areas of discussion in terms of the team selection. Eoin Reddan or Isaac Boss at scrum-half? Luke Fitzgerald or Fergus McFadden on the left wing? Cian Healy or Heinke van der Merwe at loosehead prop and finally Kevin McLaughlin or Shane Jennings in the backrow? There are compelling arguments for all the respective options but if the rumours are to be believed, Schmidt will opt for an unchanged team from the one that started the quarter and semi-final meaning Reddan, Healy, Fitzgerald and McLaughlin would start. It will be tough on all those losing out, especially Jennings and the in-form McFadden, but Schmidt has generally got these selections right this season so you have to trust his judgement. Besides all four will have a big role to play off the bench, as will Stan Wright who looked back to block-busting best last week.

If Wright and van der Merwe are on the bench tomorrow, we can expect to see them sprung with about twenty to go. The Saints front row generally play the whole match so Leinster will look to tire them out and then bring on two quality replacements to inflict further punishment. The scrum will be a major area of concern, especially with Romain Poite refereeing. He's not the most technical referee at scrum-time in that he generally picks a weaker pack in the first two or three scrums and then penalises them for the rest of the match whenever it goes down. Both Mike Ross and scrum coach Greg Feek will have been doing their homework on both the Saints and Poite though and they'll have plenty of plans to nullify them. They don't need to dominate the Saints scrum to beat them, but they will need to stop the Saints scrum from dominating them.

The breakdown will be a crucial battle area too, especially as Poite generally allows a free for all, with players coming in from all sides off their feet. Leo Cullen will have a crucial role in finding out what he'll allow early and then playing accordingly. It may well ruin the game as a spectacle but that wouldn't be the first time that's happened with Poite reffing. As they were against the Tigers in the quarter-final Leinster will need to compete ferociously but smartly in that area.

With the roof closed, the weather won't be a factor and Leinster will fancy taking on Northampton out wide both through first phase and through Isa Nacewa's counter-attacking. Jonny Sexton's kicking from hand will also be vital in keeping the pressure on the Northampton back three as will the chasing from the likes of Shane Horgan.

Leinster will be desperate to get off to a better start to the match than they did against Toulouse. To that end they just need to concentrate on their basics and let the rest fall into place. Leinster are big favourites to win and it's hard to find anyone outside of Northampton tipping against them. Irish teams have typically struggled with the favourites tag, however it's unavoidable when you've beaten the teams Leinster have this season. They've beaten the top two teams in the French and English leagues including the current champions of those leagues plus the current European Champions. With a record as impressive as that, they're going to be made favourites whether they like it or not and with just reason.

It may cause some unease with some Leinster fans, but if we've really got ambitions to become a truly great European power like Toulouse, then it's something we'll have to live with. Complacency and cockiness is a trait of the foolish, but real confidence in our team is fine when laced with a touch of humility. When asked what Joe Schmidt has brought to the squad this year Kevin McLaughlin responded that it was just this type of humility. They don't think they'll win because they're Leinster, they think they'll win because they're going to work their arse off to do it, regardless of the opposition. Our team has given us so much reason to believe in them all season, that it would be mad to stop believing in them now. Leinster will have huge respect for Northampton on Saturday, but they'll also be confident they have the game to win.

The estimated Leinster travelling support is 15,000 but with people buying their tickets from different sources, don't be surprised if there's a far larger number than that there. Whatever their number, the Leinster support will be colourful and loud, that much is guaranteed.

It will be a tough and tense match, with probably only a score or two in it. Northampton won't give away anything easy and Leinster will need to be on top of their game. But after the 'phoney wars' of the last two weeks, Leinster can put everything into Saturday's match.

It will be nerve-shredding stuff as always, but Leinster should have enough to win by a score or two.

Probable Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Northampton Saints
Teams Isa Nacewa 15 Ben Foden
Shane Horgan 14 Chris Ashton
Brian O'Driscoll 13 Jon Clarke
Gordon D'Arcy 12 James Downey
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Paul Diggin
Jonathan Sexton 10 Stephen Myler
Eoin Reddan 9 Lee Dickson

Cian Healy 1 Soane Tonga'uiha
Richardt Strauss 2 Dylan Hartley
Mike Ross 3 Brian Mujati
Leo Cullen (C) 4 Courtney Lawes
Nathan Hines 5 Christian Day
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Phil Dowson
Sean O'Brien 7 Calum Clark
Jamie Heaslip 8 Roger Wilson

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Brett Sharman
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Alex Waller
Stan Wright 18 Tom Mercey
Devin Toner 19 Mark Sorenson
Shane Jennings 20 Mark Easter
Isaac Boss 21 Stuart Commins
Ian Madigan 22 Shane Geraghty
Fergus McFadden 23 Joe Ansbro

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney,
Shaun Berne,
Brendan Macken,
Andrew Conway

Officials Referee: Romain Poite (Fra)
Assistant Referees: Jerome Garces (Fra), Pascal Gauzere (Fra)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-23