IT IS a measure of the Irish impact on the Heineken Cup that Leinster’s appearance in the decider in Cardiff on Saturday marks the seventh by an Irish side in the competition’s 16-year history.
Cardiff are the only Welsh team to make the final, back in the first year of the tournament in 1996, while the furthest a Scottish side has progressed was a quarter-final showing by Edinburgh in 2004.
Despite the suggested indifference of French clubs towards the tournament, at least over the opening decade, a French club have reached the final 14 times while the English Premiership has produced just two more finalists than Ireland (nine).
That is why a fifth title on Saturday would represent a marvellous achievement for Irish rugby. This Leinster side are worthy ambassadors of the game in this country. They possess some of the world leaders in their position and play a style of rugby that is positive, pleasing on the eye and physically imposing. They are the complete package.
Finals in all sports, however, are littered with the shredded ambitions of superior teams who failed to adjust to the demands of a one-off game against an inferior force that managed to get everything right on the day.
Make no mistake, without having anything like the depth of quality throughout their squad that Leinster possess, Northampton are still capable of making life very difficult for Leo Cullen’s men on Saturday.
When it comes to closing the deal and winning silverware at this level of competition the team with the greater mental capacity normally prevails. That is why I have so much faith in this Leinster outfit to deliver a second Heineken Cup in three seasons. The injuries to key personnel are an unwelcome distraction to Leinster’s build up but there is ample evidence to suggest that they have the capacity to deal with such issues.
The Leinster performance that impressed me most this season was in defeat when they travelled into the bear pit of reigning French champions Clermont Auvergne at the Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin in December.
Forced to line out without three British and Irish Lions in Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O’Driscoll, against an opposition backline with such proven running talent as Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu, Napolioni Nalaga and Anthony Floch, Leinster not only survived but prospered.
Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley proved they could mix it with the big boys in Europe. In addition Leinster saw their talismanic number eight Jamie Heaslip roll his ankle in the opening five minutes while Sean O’Brien took a heavy knock that stifled his contribution for a period.
Inevitably in the circumstances, Leinster were beaten but returned home after a 20-13 defeat with a bonus point in the bag and more importantly a belief that the burden could be shared evenly across a massively talented squad. Justification for that assertion came within a six-day period when Clermont were spectacularly dismantled at the Aviva Stadium.
That week confirmed for me that Leinster have ticked all the boxes to become a truly class European outfit.
Leinster’s Heineken Cup success two years ago woke a sleeping giant and since that victory in Edinburgh, rugby in the province has gone from strength to strength. Some years ago, a prominent member of the Munster rugby fraternity made the point that if Leinster ever got their act together off the field, then the southern province would be in trouble. Suffice to say, they have got their act together.
The more you analyse this final — and I will do that in greater depth on Saturday — the more you lean towards a Leinster victory. The only thing that could scupper them at the moment is if they let the occasion get to them and fail to reproduce the kind of form that has been taken for granted for so long now or if their preparation has been compromised because of injury.
Northampton are a predictable side who play a simple and direct style of rugby built on power and aggression in the contact area. They are very competitive at the breakdown and are clever in the manner they use their power to pick and go at ruck time to suck in defenders.
The recent injury to Tom Wood in the back row, who had an excellent debut season for England in the Six Nations, has however blunted that effectiveness in those areas.
In many ways they are a mirror image of the Munster model of a few years ago but not nearly as proficient at half back. The problem for them is when they are matched or bettered in the physical stakes, as they were against Leicester in the Premiership semi-final last Saturday, they are in trouble.
Perpignan lost the plot in the Heineken Cup semi-final with a woeful defensive structure and shocking ill discipline. Those factors help facilitate a Northampton victory. Leinster will not be as accommodating and the Saints will be required to work much harder to register points.
The fact that they lost a fifth Premiership semi-final in recent years last weekend will do nothing for their confidence but in coaches Jim Mallinder and Dorian West they have two solid individuals who will have no problem in getting them up for a serious crack at Leinster.
On Saturday, Northampton were out muscled by a Leicester Tigers side that struggled to match Leinster’s physicality in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in Dublin.
Also above them in the final Aviva Premiership table was a Saracens team that were comprehensively beaten home and away by Leinster in the pool stages this season.
All season, new Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has prepared his side for every eventuality and on most occasions has come out on the right side of the result. This is the biggest week of his coaching career and from his time in Clermont, he has learned how to deal with massive expectation levels on the big day.
Last season, he was part of the coaching ticket that delivered the famed Bouclier de Brennus to Clermont for the first time in their history after losing the three previous finals (and 10 in total).
Now that’s pressure.
Should he deliver Heineken Cup glory to Leinster in his first season he will become hot property, just like the squad he inherited last July.
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