Perfect stage for cullen to show world Cup worth
Published 28/05/2011 | 05:00
If you could have scripted a fixture to crown the season, this would most definitely have been it. And if anyone out there thinks that there is a single member of the new European champions dreading the trek to Limerick, then think again.
They could well lose this afternoon, but every single Leinster player will be licking his lips at the prospect of this Magners League Grand Final showdown at Thomond Park.
This is tribal rivalry at its very best -- a fixture where form is meaningless, where passion rules.
For Tony McGahan and Munster, it is a heaven-sent opportunity to turn over the top team in Europe and take the Magners League crown they clearly deserve, given that they finished 13 points clear in the table.
For Leinster coach Joe Schmidt, opportunity knocks to create history and complete the fairytale double in his first season in charge.
And then there is Ireland coach Declan Kidney, for whom the most perfect unofficial final trial unfolds before a full house, with a no-holds-barred encounter set to shed light on some World Cup selections.
Schmidt is right when he calls the Celtic final a much "tougher test" than the Heineken Cup decider. That is no slight on Northampton, just a statement of fact, given the ingredients.
Munster are fresh, hungry and jealous -- as well as high on confidence, given their one-point win (24-23) in the home league fixture six weeks ago.
The fact that they didn't score a try and haven't in half a dozen attempts against their old rivals (an extraordinary statistic) may rankle, but they won't care a jot if Ronan O'Gara kicks them to victory this evening.
The Heineken Cup final was a classic, the best I have witnessed, but this evening's Celtic encounter also has all the right ingredients for a monumental encounter. It should replicate Cardiff for thrills and spills, with an intensity that is absolutely guaranteed.
The one-try game back in April was pure theatre and, irrespective of the outcome, I would settle for that again. One way or the other, we won't be disappointed -- take that as read.
So, what exactly can we expect?
A Leinster side that wants to win is coming to Limerick with the intention of ransacking a Munster side that has to win. With 19 victories from 22 games in the regular league, the best team over the course of the marathon campaign is desperate to complete the job now.
I have mixed views on the play-off formula. When it was first introduced to the All-Ireland League, I felt it was unfair that the team that had proven it was the best, by finishing top of the table, had to win it again -- to be sure, to be sure.
The play-off system is now part and parcel of the professional game. It is not so much a necessary evil as an extension to the long-term planning when the initial team goals are set.
To draw comparison with long-distance running, it's about pacing, about planning for the season and selecting teams throughout the campaign (in regular league and play-offs) accordingly.
What is beyond dispute is that the two best teams in the competition by a mile (those finishing first and second in the table) have made it through to today's finale, with Munster deserving of home advantage.
The attendance would have been doubled if the final had been switched to the Aviva Stadium, but that would have been unfair in the extreme -- unless the decision is made that the Grand Final should always be held in a predetermined venue (much like the Heineken).
We won't bother going through all the obvious unit and individual match-ups -- they are old hat at this stage. But, for some, the stakes are extremely high, given the switch in focus after today to New Zealand 2011.
Marcus Horan, Damien Varley, James Coughlan and Felix Jones all have a chance to lay down a World Cup marker.
For Leinster captain Leo Cullen, the stage is set to take on Donncha O'Callaghan and make it a case of either/or to partner Paul O'Connell in the second-row against the US Eagles in the World Cup opener.
Shane Horgan, Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden (who edges closer by the game) can all further their case for a place on the plane. So, too, Shane Jennings, whose half-time introduction at the Millennium Stadium last week certainly played a part in Leinster's remarkable turnaround.
He and Denis Leamy have so much to play for beyond the 'mere' result this afternoon. But make no mistake, the result is the be all and end all to putting the cap on this fulfilling Irish rugby season.
And please may we be spared the hype of heaping more pressure on the relatively young shoulders of Jonathan Sexton in advocating him for future captaincy.
He has enough on his plate, as O'Gara will be reminding him again, without this pressure at a still premature stage in his burgeoning career. In a sense, current Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll did him few favours with his throwaway line in the post-match interview last week about half-time speakers.
Sexton's focus is on copper-fastening his hold on the Ireland No 10 jersey and that's what he will do in ensuring a steady Leinster course by deeds not words today. It is his way and I doubt he will deviate one iota.
As to the outcome? Both teams will turn up with equal mindsets. If each delivers to form, then Leinster's greater creativity could see them home.
It should be something special. Bring it on.