BOOKMAKERS do not often get things wrong but if you were going to make one wager with them today it is that Joe Schmidt will not have enjoyed seeing punters paid out on a Leinster win two days before kick-off.
So high are the levels of expectation on Leinster to go out at the Millennium Stadium in this evening’s Heineken Cup final and put the hammer on Northampton Saints that the province’s coach is putting all his efforts into levelling the playing field.
Rightly so, for this is a Northampton side with nothing to lose and smarting from a domestic semi-final defeat to their arch rivals Leicester last weekend.
Jim Mallinder and his Saints side are more than happy in the role of the underdog, and more than capable of springing a surprise and turning over the favourites.
The chances of that happening may not be in their favour but they are not as slim as the oddmakers would have us believe, and as Leinster’s dynamic head coach alluded to, nothing else matters apart from what happens next.
“I think finals are two sets of 40 minutes,” Schmidt said. “It’s like any competition where there’s two guys competing for one spot, it’s all on the day.
“Looking at Northampton, and some of the things they’ve been talking about, they are very aware of that.
“They know they’re as good a chance as we are, despite what the pundits say and what the history is. Past performance is exactly that, it’s not the performance that’s going to happen this weekend. Past experience is the same. It’s who can stay concentrated and accurate and physically on their game for two sets of 40 minutes.”
The knock on Northampton is that they have enjoyed a soft run to the final in coming through a pool containing Cardiff, Castres and Edinburgh while Leinster faced Racing Metro, Schmidt’s old club Clermont Auvergne and Saracens. Yet the Saints came through unbeaten and thus earned the right as top seeds to face the weakest qualifier Ulster in the quarters. It was not their fault Leinster lost one of their pool games and drew Leicester in the quarters and then Toulouse in the semi-final, while the English side hardly had an easy last-four opponent in Perpignan, whose revered scrum was put to the sword by the Saints.
“That’s one of the great things about this competition,” Schmidt said. “If it was decided on points and who had the tougher road I’d be pretty happy with that now as I think maybe we had a tough road. But we may still lose out on that count as they are actually unbeaten and you don’t do that easily no matter what pool you’re in.
“We’ve lost to two of the teams they’ve beaten twice in Cardiff and Edinburgh, we had to humbly walk away with a loss. So it’s very much on the day.”
With the same three-quarter line and fly-half that won the Heineken Cup for Leinster two years ago and a much improved forward pack from that day at Murrayfield against Leicester, Leinster have proved they can do it on the day and their performances en route to this final have been exhilarating at times, most notably at the Aviva Stadium when roared on by hugely partisan fans.
Leinster have game-changers from one to 15 who will be difficult for Northampton to contain as Mallinder conceded this week when he admitted: “We know we are going to be stretched and put under pressure but we have said that over the season against other big sides and we have come through.”
Northampton, on neutral ground in Cardiff, believe they can come through again and if they are to do so they will have to have their renowned front row get the better of Leinster’s trio of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross.
Those battles between Soane Tonga’uiha and Ross, Dylan Hartley and Strauss and Brian Mujati and Healy at scrum time will be key to Northampton’s hopes of success, vital to delivering the platform their potent back three of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Paul Diggin thrive on.
If Leinster can at least achieve parity in that department it should be enough to negate Northampton and allow their fly-half Jonathan Sexton to unleash the province’s irresistible attacking flair.
In full-back Isa Nacewa they have this season’s player of the competition, although forwards and team-mates Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip have run him close, and the recovery from injury of midfield talisman Brian O’Driscoll gives them yet another spark.
Both teams play high-tempo attacking rugby with a hard physical edge so it should be a cracker, but you can bet it will be a lot closer than the bookies imagine.
Picture: Leinster captain Leo Cullen, right, and Northampton Saints captain Dylan Hartley ahead of today’s Heineken Cup final. Picture: SPORTSFILE
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