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Heineken Cup Final: Leicester Tigers vs Leinster Rugby

Murrayfield, Edinburgh, Scotland
Saturday, 23 May 2009, 17:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 2, Highlights RTE 2 20.30

And so it comes down to this!!

Leinster's first ever Heineken Cup final.

Of course irony would dictate that our big chance would arrive against Leicester in Edinburgh, a team and a city that have played such big parts in our fourteen year history in the cup.

Leicester were the first English team Leinster ever played in the Heineken Cup, when they lost 27-10 on a freezing cold Wednesday night in Lansdowne Road in October '96. But Leicester were also the first English team Leinster beat in the Heineken Cup, when they beat them 16-9 in a shock result in Donnybrook a year later.

Leicester arrived that day with a star-studded team, with most of the English pack plus exotic imports like Joel Stransky and Waisale Serevi. Yet a humble Leinster team, with most of their top internationals playing in England, somehow beat England's top side. Kevin Nowlan secured his place in Leinster history by scoring the only try and one Leicester fan was heard to complain on the final whistle that Leinster had an unfair advantage as they were a province and poor little Leicester were only a club! That defeat was avenged pretty savagely, 47-22 over in Welford Road, but the seed had been planted in Leinster's mind that perhaps, one day, they could compete with the big boys.

Two seasons later, they met again in Donnybrook and revenge was on the minds of Martin Johnson and co. Yet a lot had changed in those two years and the IRFU had decided to invest in getting their top players back from England. So Malcolm O'Kelly and Victor Costello were back and new players had emerged on the scene like Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll and Girvan Dempsey who weren't being let go anywhere. Mark McHugh had the game of his life, kicking all of the points in a 27-20 victory. Martin Johnson was getting pretty sick of the sight of Donnybrook at this stage.

Leinster even won the return fixture in Welford Road this time, 32-10, although it must be said the Tigers were out of the tournament and put out a weakened team. It wasn't enough for Leinster to qualify for the quarter-finals though as an away defeat in Scotland to Glasgow was too much to overcome. Costly away defeats in Scotland were unfortunately to become a theme of Leinster's European history too. Sure enough, the following season they played, and lost, their first pool match in Edinburgh, a defeat that effectively cost them qualification despite great wins over Northampton and Biarritz.

The next season, Leinster finally qualified for the quarter-finals but of course the Tigers were waiting for them at Welford Road. Going into the tie as inaugural Celtic League winners Leinster were pretty confident. However Leicester pulverised them up front in a 29-18 win. The score didn't even reflect Leicester's superiority as they scored five tries to two.

Three years later, Leinster had their chance at revenge in another quarter-final, but this time it was at Lansdowne Road and things would be different. Except they weren't different at all! Once again, Leicester crushed them up front again to win 29-13, again a score which indicated a more competitive game than it actually was. Once again Leinster were bullied by the Tigers.

Time passed and Leinster got a new coach in Michael Cheika, but even he couldn't shake off the curse of Murrayfield as a 25-24 defeat to Edinburgh in 2006 cost them a home quarter-final, which led to a hammering from Wasps in Wycombe. Then last season Leinster drew Leicester again in the Group stages. Led by Ollie Le Roux, the Leinster forwards stood up to the Tigers pack and they won 22-9. Shane Horgan scored a peach of a try and Felipe Contepomi kicked superbly.

Leinster couldn't sustain that level of performance though and heavy defeats in Toulouse and Edinburgh (yes Murrayfield again!) meant that by the time they played Leicester in the final group fixture, it was effectively a dead rubber. Leicester themselves had been also been bitten by the Murrayfield curse and their interest was over too. The Tigers got a measure of revenge by winning 25-9 in a feisty encounter but it was largely academic. As both sets of supporters left the terraces, they wished each other well in their respective domestic leagues. The thought that they would be meeting in this years final seemed pretty far-fetched at that stage.

Leicester have seen two head coaches depart since that win. Former Argentina coach Manuel Loffreda was let go at the end of last season and Heineke Meyer was recruited from South Africa. However a family illness meant he had to cut short his tenure to return home in January and Richard Cockerill, who had worked under both men, took over. A former member of the famed ABC club (Leicester's front row for most of the Nineties) it might have been expected that Leicester would return to their old-school, forward-orientated style. Instead Leicester began to play with a more open style, led by Sam Vesty who finally got a chance to play out-half after years as a utility back in the squad. They went on a winning run, which culminated in them beating London Irish last weekend to win the Guinness Premiership.

As the teams won't be named until Friday, we're still guessing at this stage, but it's likely the only change for the Tigers will be the return from suspension of giant Samoan winger Alesana Tuilagi in place of Johne Murphy. For Leinster, it's likely to be the same team that started against Munster, save for Jonny Sexton for the injured Felipe Contepomi. Rob Kearney's ill-timed bout of mumps, coupled with Isa Nacewa's excellent form at full-back, will probably see him on the bench alongside Girvan Dempsey.

The head to head battles are going to be fiercely fought, especially in the pack. Leicester will fancy their chances of doing a number on Leinster in the scrum although they will have a greater chance of this if Martin Castrogiovanni shakes off a shoulder injury to start. However Cian Healy has stood up to some pretty good scrummagers this season and he will relish the chance to enhance his reputation once again.

In the lineout Ben Kay is back on form and he'll look to target Bernard Jackman's throw, which wasn't the best against Munster. However Leo Cullen knows the Leicester lineout well from his two year spell there and he and Mal O'Kelly will go after George Chuter's throw just as vigorously. Kay's second row partner is Tom Croft, who's great athleticism and extraordinary pace was first seen in the number six jersey. However recently Cockerill had deployed him the second row to allow himself the luxury of playing with two open-sides in Craig Newby and Ben Woods.

Woods is an old-fashioned groundhog while former Otago man Newby is more of an all-rounder, but their combination with aggressive number eight Jordan Crane has been very effective in the key battle of the breakdown this season. Leinster's form this season had steadily gotten better as they've competed better at the breakdown. Against Munster, Rocky Elsom, Jamie Heaslip and former Tiger Shane Jennings ruled the roost at the contact area. They're going to step up another gear from that performance, as they'll effectively be competing against four backrows. It will be the winning and losing of the game but such has been the form of the Leinster backrow that you'd still back them.

At half-back Julien Depuy should hold off the challenge of Lion Harry Ellis, such has been his form and his goal-kicking will be vital. He will be partnered by the aforementioned Vesty who struggled a little last weekend. He was definitely happier when he had Aaron Mauger playing behind him because now he's sole creative player in the midfield. Ayoola Erinle and Dan Hipkiss are fine players but are similar types of centre, quick and powerful rather than the more subtle Mauger.

For Leinster Chris Whitaker will play his last match for Leinster at scrum-half. He's not always been a favourite amongst the fans, but it was more for his style of play and there was never any doubt about the effort he put in for the team. His defensive work has always been exemplary and he was always a gent off the pitch. In fact in the last few weeks, we've finally seen the snappy quick passing that fans have been demanding for years. It would be poetic if he could finish on a high note.

Whitaker partners Johnny Sexton, who taken over from the unfortunate Contepomi in such an impressive fashion. Sexton is a more orthodox out-half than the Argentine, but his more straightforward game seems to be getting the best of out the outside backs. He can rest assured the Tigers will be gunning for him, but having survived Munster at Croke Park, he won't be phased by that. And with Whitaker in front of him and Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll behind him, he won't be short of experience to help him along.

D'Arcy and O'Driscoll have had their setbacks over the years but they're both back in serious form and their defensive effort will be vital at the breakdown as they both can create turnovers on their own. In the back three, presuming they stick with the current team, Luke Fitzgerald and Shane Horgan are both in cracking try-scoring form on the wing. They'll also need to be on top defensive form against Tuilagi and former Crusader Scott Hamilton, who's a top class finisher. Geordan Murphy captains his team from full-back and he's in imperious form, but then so is Isa Nacewa, who's showing what he can really do in the number fifteen jersey after stints on the wing and out-half earlier in the season.

So the teams are pretty evenly matched on the field and both have game-breakers to come off the bench too. The thought of Lewis Moody and Sean O'Brien both arriving late into the game and going head to head is a mouth-watering one.

It's a tough game to call and the bookies can barely split the teams, the Tigers being marginal favorites. You get the feeling from Leicester that despite what they're saying in public, they still expect to see the Leinster side that they beat so comfortably in the two quarter-finals. Leinster will need to disabuse them of this notion quickly and get in their faces early and often. As in the semi-final the big ball carriers like Crane, Croft, Hipkiss and Tuilagi have to be targeted for big hits. Vesty and Depuy have to be harried and disrupted. And when Leinster have the ball they have to make their chances count.

Kurt McQuilkin, who played in the famous 16-9 win back in Donnybrook in '97, has assembled one of the best defences in Europe, conceding less than one try per game and only four tries in eight Heineken Cup games in this campaign. It's the reason why Leinster are in this final and if Leinster are to complete the job the defence will need to be on top form again.

This season Leinster finally got rid of the "Murrayfield curse" when they beat Edinburgh 27-16. For once they'll actually be playing to a noisy full house, instead of a hauntingly empty Murrayfield that they're used to.

The travelling Leinster fans are going to be split up all over the place thanks to the ERC's nonsensical ticket distribution policy. However that's no excuse to be quiet and we need all the Blues fans to leave the pubs early and be in your seats to welcome the team out for their warm-up. Don't worry, you can bring your pint with you to your seat. The support against Quins and Munster was vital to the team so we can't let them down in the biggest match of the lot.

It's going to be tense!

It's going to be brutal!

It's going to shred our every last nerve!!!!

But, hopefully, it's going to be OUR DAY!!!!


Probable Team Lineups

Leicester Tigers

Leinster Rugby
Teams Geordan Murphy (C)
15 Isa Nacewa
Scott Hamilton
14 Shane Horgan
Ayoola Erinle
13 Brian O'Driscoll
Dan Hipkiss
12 Gordan D'Arcy
Alesana Tuilagi
11 Luke Fitzgerald
Sam Vesty
10 Jonathan Sexton
Julien Dupuy
9 Chris Whitaker

Marcus Ayersa
1 Cian Healy
George Chuter
2 Bernard Jackman
Martin Castrogiovanni
3 Stan Wright
Tom Croft
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Ben Kay
5 Malcolm O'Kelly
Craig Newby
6 Rocky Elsom
Ben Woods
7 Shane Jennings
Jordan Crane
8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Benjamin Kayser
16 John Fogarty
Julian White
17 Ronan McCormack
Louis Deacon
18 Devin Toner
Lewis Moody
19 Sean O'Brien
Harry Ellis
20 Simon Keogh
Matt Smith
21 Rob Kearney
Johne Murphy
22 Girvan Dempsey
Not considered
due to injury
Aaron Mauger
Toby Flood
  C.J. Van der Linde (Toe - Out for Season)
Felipe Contepomi (Knee - Out for Season)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-05-21