Final judgment awaits Leinster
Schmidt's men have class to secure second European title
MAY 21 -- Judgment Day. That's according to Harold Camping, a former civil engineer from California (where else?) whose Bible studies have convinced him that Armageddon is upon us today and has won over thousands of followers to the same way of thinking.
"On May 21, 2011, two events will occur," says Camping. "One will be more wonderful than can be imagined; the other more horrific than can be imagined. A great earthquake will occur, so powerful it will throw open all graves. The remains of all the believers will be glorified... the bodies of all unsaved people will be thrown out upon the ground to be shamed."
So, there you go. Against this backdrop, the result of a rugby match, even one as important as the Heineken Cup final, appears inconsequential.
That being said, after all they have been through to get to this point, defeat for either Leinster or Northampton this evening (kick-off 5.0) is bound to seem like the end of the world.
Leinster would have the possibility of a Magners League consolation next weekend against Munster but, following what is guaranteed to be an intensely emotional and physically draining contest, it is hard to gauge what state Joe Schmidt's players will be in when they arrive in Limerick next Saturday.
Northampton have no fall-back. Defeat to Leicester in a torrid contest at Welford Road last weekend ended their domestic aspirations and increased their determination to end an encouraging, arduous campaign on a positive note.
Saints supporters began seeping into Cardiff from early yesterday afternoon exhibiting a defiant sense of self-belief for a contest where they have been classified as underdogs across the board.
Indeed, bookmakers Paddy Power are so confident of a Leinster victory they have already paid out on any outcome that has Leinster to win the cup or beat Northampton.
The ERC decision to close the roof, seeking to emulate the remarkable hot-house atmosphere that accentuated Munster's triumph here in 2008, works more in Leinster's favour as a scrappy, weather-affected match would play to Northampton's forward strengths while helping to negate Leinster's attacking superiority.
The news that Brian O'Driscoll is fit to start is an obvious boon for Leinster. And, even if the Ireland captain's knee problem forces him out of the action early, the scene would then be set for Fergus McFadden to 'do a David Fairclough' and make his point, in a season full of them.
When added to Leinster's tougher route to the final and coach Joe Schmidt's ability to select the same XV that handled the best Toulouse could throw at them in their epic semi-final, it starts to look grim for Northampton.
There is no question that emerging from a group containing French champions Clermont, Racing Metro and English Premiership finalists Saracens, and then seeing off English champions Leicester and Heineken Cup champions Toulouse, has stood to Schmidt's men.
Northampton emerged unbeaten from their pool but getting around Cardiff, Edinburgh and Castres constituted a considerably easier task than the one Leinster were presented with.
Similarly in the knockout stages, Ulster and Perpignan were not as formidable as Leinster's challenges, and the Saints' task was made easier by the fact neither opponent was able to find their their best form in Milton Keynes, with Perpignan particularly disappointing.
Jim Mallinder's selection yesterday was very much along expected lines, with Calum Clark filling the sizeable void left by Tom Wood on the blind-side flank, but the rest of the side a procession of proven combinations.
The problem is that Leinster have their own establishment to lean on and in the second-row, back-row, half-back and midfield, they carry more potency than the English outfit.
It is not that the Saints are weak in these areas -- far from it -- it's just that they are not as varied as the 2009 champions.
Northampton's back three and front-row are unquestionably their strongest units, but Leinster are hardly lacking here either. Richardt Strauss recovering from a bruised side was a hugely significant development, both due to his stunning form this season and the fact that, for all his promise, Jason Harris-Wright lacks crucial experience as this level.
Cian Healy, Strauss and Mike Ross are facing a monumental battle against Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati at scrum time, but it is a scrap they are more than capable of dominating or at least achieving parity.
Similarly, at the back, Ben Foden and his wingers Chris Ashton and Paul Diggin present a formidable proposition for anyone, but Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan and Luke Fitzgerald (if he can repeat his superb showing in the second half against Ulster last weekend) are not too shabby themselves.
However, for all the irrefutable logic leaning towards Leinster, this is not a fait accompli and there are genuine reasons for Leinster caution when assessing this challenge.
For a start, Mallinder could not have dreamed up a better motivational run-in. Being written off to the point where bookmakers are already paying out on your defeat is psychological gold.
The hurt and sense of injustice from the defeat to Leicester -- when Manu Tuilagi's astonishing assault on Ashton failed to earn a red card -- will further strengthen their resolve and there is precedent from their previous Heineken Cup triumph in 2000 to inspire them.
The symmetry stems from going in as underdogs against Irish opponents (in 2000 it was Munster), injury to a key player (in 2000 it was Matt Dawson), a win-or-bust shot at a trophy after failure in other competitions, and hope founded on a rugged forward pack allied to some dangerous runners out wide (in 2000, it was Allan Bateman and Ben Cohen).
The mood in the Northampton camp is bullish and positive, with the Leicester defeat swiftly addressed by a team bonding session in Pizza Hut, paid for by captain Hartley.
Mallinder is a level-headed and canny coach who extracts the maximum from the players under his command and, while he holds his opponents and their coach in high regard, he still holds the belief that Leinster can be derailed.
"Watching the lads train over the last couple of days, you wouldn't think it was the end of the season or they are tired. We are in good shape," said Mallinder.
"Leinster have gone up a level under Joe and we know we are going to be stretched and put under pressure, but we have said that against the other big sides and come through.
"We have put that Leicester defeat away... We only have one thing on our minds now."
Plenty of danger then, but whatever Leinster 'Doomsday' scenario you come up with, it is hard to envisage the defensive effort that dealt with the sustained and varied Toulouse offence wilting in the face of Northampton's more direct efforts.
Leinster, typified by the stoic excellence of captain Leo Cullen, have the determination to make it over the line after what should be a compelling tussle. As the team who have played the best rugby in Europe this season, they deserve it.
Now, it is a case of hoping our Californian friend is wrong and we are still around to see it.