All eyes will be on Twickenham on Saturday as an all-Irish final between Leinster and Ulster decides who will lift the Heineken Cup.
All eyes will focus on Twickenham on Saturday as an all-Irish final between Leinster and Ulster decides who will be Heineken Cup champions of 2012.
There is no doubt that Leinster have earned their spot in the final after winning against Clermont in Bordeaux – let us not go into why the top seeds were sent on their travels – and if they were to lift the Heineken Cup three times in four years, they will also be the second team to go back-to-back.
Add to their impressive campaign the fact they were unbeaten in the Pools, despite going close to losing in their first fixture in Montpellier, and few would begrudge Joe Schmidt's men of coming out on top. Furthermore, a similar feeling will ring true ahead of the RaboDirect PRO12 final.
They are a rather short price of 1/4 with several bookmakers though for an 80-minute pressure cooker of a final and it would be daft to dismiss Ulster from glory. Why? They will thoroughly enjoy coming into this as underdogs as they look to end what has been a typically up and down term.
In Brian McLaughlin's last season at the helm, they finished the PRO12 in sixth spot, nine points off the play-offs as a late-season league slump coincided with eyes wandering to this clash. Make no mistake, they are refreshed and have been preparing for this one for a while.
If they can continue in the defensive manner of the quarter and semi-final successes, where they completed a combined 321 tackles, then they may just end up partying like it's 1999.
While making sure not to do a disservice to Declan Fitzpatrick, who was excellent in John Afoa's absence in the semi-final, the return of the All Black tighthead brings a welcome boost to their pack while flank Chris Henry is also fit to play and steps in for Willie Faloon.
The pack is where Ulster have prided themselves this campaign and while Leinster possess a fearsome eight of their own, this is the area the underdogs will target. If they can upset the champions' set-piece, particularly the line-out where Richardt Strauss will feel the pressure of Johann Muller, then rhythm could be upset. And with Pienaar rarely having an off day from the kicking tee and a derby final such as this on the line, errors are going to be key.
On the other side, Leinster continue to be without winger Luke Fitzgerald in a back-three that has been in scintillating form throughout their unbeaten European streak. Rob Kearney needs two tries to draw level with Timoci Matanavou on eight as the competition's top try-scorer this year while Jonathan Sexton is fourteen points shy of Ireland fly-half rival Ronan O'Gara (102 points). It's also worth noting that centre Brian O'Driscoll requires one try to go level with Toulouse winger Vincent Clerc at the top of the all-time Heineken Cup charts. All would no doubt swap any personal milestones for team glory at Twickenham on Saturday.
So as Ireland descends on London, will it be a continuation of blue European dominance or chants of Stand Up For The Ulster Men at full-time in a competition that rarely disappoints.
Ones to watch:
For Leinster: Who better than the man looking to add to an already bulging medal drawer. If former All Black lock Brad Thorn does win the Heineken Cup on Saturday then he would join Rod Kafer and Doug Howlett in being the only southern hemisphere player to win the Super Rugby and European elite cup in their career. It was quite fitting that Thorn said “there's a brick wall between us and the cup in Ulster” as the man is pretty much an immovable force himself. In a week when it emerged Simon Shaw has signed a one-year deal extension with Toulon in France, who'd bet against Thorn continuing for a bit longer.
For Ulster: One supporter sign that has become synonymous with the Heineken Cup this season has been “You've been Ruan-ed”. So many teams have been along the way and if Ruan Pienaar can add Leinster onto that list on Saturday evening, he is set to have the freedom of Belfast next week. Springbok international Pienaar has an ability to slow down all that is in front of him and in knockout rugby of this magnitude, his skills and calming influence is going to give Ulster a chance. If he can combine with Pedrie Wannenburg like he did in the last round, then Ulster's arguably stronger forward pack could get on top.
Head-to-head: The back-row battle will be one to savour as Sean O'Brien goes up against Stephen Ferris. The latter's worth cannot be downplayed as he not only possesses a wealth of skills but also strikes a psychological blow to his rivals when fit and named – and flip that to the confidence it gives his colleagues when he is alongside them. A clearly injured Ferris battled through Ulster's semi-final win over Edinburgh but against O'Brien and Leinster, anything but a 100 per cent performance for 80 minutes might not be enough.
Prediction: Intense, brutal and typical finals rugby is expected. Ulster to sneak it by 1!
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Leo Cullen (capt), 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Nathan White, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 David Kearney.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Adam D'Arcy.
Date: Saturday, May 19
Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), JÃ©rÃ´me Garces (France)
By Adam Kyriacou