By Ian Cusack
Leinster are eighty minutes away from adding the Challenge Cup to their trophy cabinet, but even with home advantage and the added motivation of ending Joe Schmidt’s tenure with another European triumph, nothing can be taken for granted against an unpredictable Stade Francais outfit.
His remarkable record with Leinster rightfully earned Schmidt the call-up to the international vacancy, but wouldn’t he just love to bow out having finally secured a league and European cup double.
Despite seeing their dream of three Heineken Cups in a row dashed by a pre-knockout exit, Leinster have shown real commitment to the second tier Challenge Cup and have been in imperious form in the competition, racking up 92 points in their two games so far.
But the demands of chasing silverware on two fronts has taken its toll on the blues, with Schmidt needing to take advantage of his squad’s strength in depth, as frontline performers have fallen victim to injury.
That familiar centre pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll played their part in getting the province to the final with D’Arcy producing a man-of-the-match performance against Wasps in the quarter-final, while BOD was in inspired form against Biarritz in the semi.
Leinster have coped without the players individually already, with O’Driscoll missing out in Adams Park due to his suspension, while D’Arcy couldn’t feature against Biarritz due to a calf strain.
However, tonight the blues will have to survive without both their talismanic midfielders, who have been ruled out through injury.
After an incredible breakthrough season at flyhalf, Ian Madigan’s credentials only grew stronger when Schmidt threw him in at inside centre in the semi-final, and the Dubliner has been entrusted with the number 12 jersey again tonight.
Fergus McFadden reminded us all that he’s more than just a journeyman, in the team for his reliable defence, with a remarkable second-half break against Biarritz which saw him reclaim his own chip ahead twice before finding a blue support runner amongst a sea of white defenders.
Strong as both players are, it represents an unfamiliar centre partnership in the Leinster back line, converting what is usually one of the province’s strongest weapons into something of an unknown quantity and Stade coach Christophe Laussucq admitted they were “not too unhappy” about O’Driscoll’s absence from the team sheet.
Clip via LeinsterrugbyTV on YouTube.
The injuries will give Munster fans another chance to preview the talent migrating their way over the summer with Andrew Conway named on the wing.
Having grabbed headlines with his hat-trick against Ospreys at the start of the month, the flyer is no doubt keen to show he can fill the boots of a certain Mr Howlett.
Stade will have spotted a few other unfamiliar names in the Leinster starting XV, most notably in the front row where Jack McGrath has been selected at loosehead with Cian Healy named among the replacements.
With the scrum being one of Stade’s strongest platforms, McGrath is in for a stern test, but the real pressure will come on the more experienced Mike Ross who will have to try and keep a lid on powerhouse Kiwi Aled De Malmanche.
Stade finished fourth from bottom in this season’s Top 14, performing particularly poorly on the road.
But their domestic form has not been evident in the Challenge Cup, with the Parisians winning away to Bath and then Perpignan to secure their place in tonight’s final at the RDS.
Clip via LasGarzas11 on YouTube.
Leinster rightly go into the contest as favourites but for the Stade players, this game is not only a chance to earn their club’s first ever piece of European silverware, it also offers the opportunity of Heineken cup rugby next season, not bad after finishing 10th in the league table.
Experienced internationals like Sergio Parisse and Julien Dupuy provide the team's leadership and if Leinster want to impose themselves on the game they must repeat the job they did on nullifying the impact of Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili in the semi-final.
In the absence of O’Driscoll and with captain Leo Cullen on the bench, Schmidt is banking on another big performance from stand-in skipper Jamie Heaslip whose form of late earned him a spot on the Lions tour.
While they have the chance to secure a European title tonight, Leinster will surrender the other tomorrow as Toulon and Clermont Auvergne arrive in Dublin to spoil the local party.
If the all-German Champions League final offered a refreshing surprise to those who believed Spanish football had left the rest of Europe in its wake, the all-French affair in the Heineken Cup is more of a disappointing confirmation that the Top 14, with its deep pockets, rules European rugby.
While it may not be the most exciting final for Ireland to host, the showdown could hardly be more finely poised. Clermont finished at the summit of the Top 14, just one point ahead of Toulon and when the teams met last month it ended 26-26, with two tries apiece.
There are compelling head-to-heads across the pitch with Matt Giteau standing opposite Wesley Fofana at 12, Nathan Hines getting to know Bakkies Botha in the second row and Danie Rossouw taking on Julien Bonnaire at six.
It’s hard for fans of the Heineken Cup not to want Clermont to prevail. Vern Cotter’s side have added so much flare and passion to the Cup over a number of years. As most other French clubs favoured their domestic pursuit, Clermont embraced the drama of the Heineken.
Just as Munster had to wait before finally getting their hands on the Cup in 2006, so too have Clermont suffered, is this their year to finally go the distance?
The fear for Clermont is that their prior inability to go the distance affects their mentality going into the final. They wobbled in the second half against a Munster side that was there for the taking despite their impassioned comeback.
Toulon have not had the same love affair with the Heineken Cup which in many ways could make their preparation easier.
But Clermont’s backline packs an almighty punch with Sitiveni Sivivatu and Naipolioni Nalaga likely to take full advantage of any opportunities which come their way given their recent form.
Leinster by six points.
Clermont by three points.