A great team ready to join the legends
Published 21/05/2011 | 05:00
The closer the match gets, the deeper the pain in the pit of the stomach, the more gut-wrenching the nerves. Such is the lot of the Northampton and Leinster players this morning as the big kick-off in the Millennium Stadium fast approaches.
Even the most seasoned internationals, global icons of the game, are feeling it in the build-up -- quite frankly were they not, there would be something seriously awry.
They may be professionals working on the principle of just another game, but this is most definitely not just another game.
Outside of the Test arena, this is the biggest rugby occasion of the northern hemisphere season. The only side unbeaten in the competition (Northampton) up against the most complete combination.
The Saints have waltzed through Cardiff, Castres, Edinburgh, Ulster and Perpignan with eight wins from eight en route to today's final.
By comparison, with one glitch (away to Clermont), Leinster have come through the reigning French champions Clermont (Joe Schmidt's former team), Racing Metro and both English Premiership finalists (Saracens and Leicester), culminating in that memorable win over the club that makes the Heineken Cup tick more than any other, Toulouse, in a classic semi-final at the Aviva.
On that basis there should be one clear outcome.
But it doesn't work like that and therein lies the danger. This is a one-off game in which anything can happen.
One piece of individual magic or one manic rush of blood to the head resulting in a yellow or red card can make the difference on days like this.
Most finals tend to be dour, defence-dominated, strategic wars of intensity. And this may well prove to be another.
But, on the basis of essential ingredients, all the bits and pieces are in place for an intriguing showdown, with the potential for either side to cut loose at any time.
Leinster can score from anywhere at any given moment, but so too Northampton. They were unlucky to lose last week's Premiership semi-final at Welford Road, while Leinster had to survive their own war of attrition against Ulster at the RDS.
The real challenge for both head coaches now is to ensure their charges arrive in prime psychological nick.
And here (despite winning their Magners League semi-final last week), it is Schmidt who is faced with the bigger task.
Jim Mallinder knows his side is where he wants it to be as underdogs -- and forget any cross-channel mind games here, for underdogs they assuredly are.
Players are only human and since beating Toulouse in the semi-final, the Leinster players have been reading, watching and hearing nothing but armchair experts predicting but one final outcome.
Of course, the physical confrontations will matter, with Northampton arguably at their best from No 1 to No 3, although they are pretty hot at No 11, No 14 and No 15 also.
The Northampton scrum is difficult to read as it can vary in terms of impact from match to match. Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley (generally the instigator) and Brian Mujati have a propensity for popping up when the opposition scrummaging heat comes on.
The spotlight will be on referee Romain Poite from first scrum to last (please God may they be kept to a minimum). The fact that he already has baggage with Cian Healy and Mike Ross since the Six Nations game in Rome will not be lost on the Frenchman. He, too, is human.
Beyond that, Courtney Lawes (a definite future Lion) is a veritable colossus out of touch and around the field. He has the potential to wreak havoc.
The Saints' general modus operandi is to defend in numbers laterally and wide (from touch-line to touch-line). If they present Leinster with a soft underbelly (through lack of numbers) at the breakdown, then in Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Richardt Strauss and Healy, the Blues have the personnel to make inroads.
By contrast the clear and present danger is in any misplaced kicking out of hand. Any indiscriminate kicking to Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Bruce Reihana could prove extremely costly. Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss and Jonny Sexton know the score.
Invariably the odd kick (in the heat of the moment) will go astray and here the much lauded Leinster kick-chase is vital. The Kurt McQuilkin legacy of chasing as one is still firmly embedded in and central to the Leinster psyche.
There is a very relevant flipside to that particular coin. Lee Dickson and Stephen Myler are relatively new kids on the half-back block. It goes without saying that they will be at the heart of Leinster planning.
Pressure in the right area as a result of loose kicking from the English side and Leinster have the backs to cut the Saints apart on the counter.
Foden will have to watch Isa Nacewa every bit as closely as Leinster's Player of the Season tracks the England inter-national.
And this could be the day the immensely talented Luke Fitzgerald comes good and re-establishes his right to a seat on the World Cup plane.
From that perspective, it will be interesting to see how James Downey and Roger Wilson go at inside-centre and No 8 respectively.
Both are no-nonsense operators who do the simple things well. Each is central to the Northampton game plan in terms of eking out field position and generating forward momentum.
It is to all intents and purposes a 'final trial' opportunity to impress the watching Declan Kidney. Not that any of that will be remotely close to the forefront of either Irish player's mind.
Today is about a sense of place and pride in club. Play well, win and anything beyond that will look after itself.
This game is a very long way from the foregone conclusion suggested by some. Leinster are the favourites for the simple and straightforward reason they have been the most impressive team in the competition by far.
They stand on the verge of greatness, set to join Leicester, Wasps, Munster and Toulouse as multiple winners. That incentive is also on offer for Northampton -- previous winners (over Munster) in 2000 at Twickenham.
It has all the ingredients to be a belter. We dare not tempt fate by suggesting the game will deliver, other than to say opportunity knocks for a good team, backboned by great players, to become collectively great.
Just as Munster made us all so proud to be Irish for so long, so too do Leinster now.
Their time is here and now. Take Leo Cullen to climb those Cardiff steps in succession to Anthony Foley and Paul O'Connell.
Needless to say, it will be close, but Leinster can pull away in the final quarter and take it by seven-plus.