Leinster can prove cream of cup crop
THEY may cringe at the notion in the build-up to Saturday's final with the trophy still to be won, but victory in Twickenham would confirm Leinster 2009-2012 as the greatest side in Heineken Cup history -- which makes them the greatest club side in Europe in the professional era.
Some would say they have that tag already, irrespective of whether they beat Ulster this weekend, given the epic victories they have achieved in the past two seasons derived from an effervescent style of rugby which has set a standard for others to aspire to.
It has been a story of gradual progression, through the Mike Ruddock, Matt Williams, Gary Ella, Declan Kidney and Michael Cheika eras before Joe Schmidt catapulted the province to a new level entirely. And, with off-field progression in terms of marketing, increased support base, a productive Academy and the move to state-of-the-art facilities in UCD, this era of Leinster hegemony could conceivably continue for four or five more years.
The challenge for the title of best Heineken Cup team comes from three sources and since Leinster are bidding to become only the second side to win back-to-back trophies, it is only fair to start with the side who achieved that distinction first.
A good barometer of the quality of any British and Irish side is the amount of Lions they produced, and Leicester at the start of the last decade were awash with players who had worn or would go onto wear the famous red jersey.
There was Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Lewis Moody, Martin Corry, Dorian West, Graham Rowntree and Ben Kay in the forwards, together with Geordan Murphy, Austin Healey, Harry Ellis (on the bench in 2002 a week after his 20th birthday) and Tim Stimpson in the backs.
They were a hell of an outfit under coach Dean Richards and captain Johnson, beating Stade Francais in the stunning 2001 decider and then outmuscling Munster the following year. Not the most stylish team to have graced the competition but ruthlessly effective.
Toulouse can justifiably claim to be the most successful club in the tournament's history by pointing to the highest number of successes.
However, given that their four trophies were spaced between 1996 and 2010, it is the 2003-05 vintage, when they won two titles and reached another final, that squares off against the current Leinster outfit.
Those squads contained some of French rugby's finest talents, men such as Fabien Pelous, Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion, William Servat, Freddie Michalak and Christian Labit, not to mention Ireland's Trevor Brennan, and -- if Clement Poitrenaud had not handed the '04 final to Wasps -- would have won three in a row, and this debate would not be an issue for another year.
The Declan Kidney sides that won two titles in three seasons have gone down in Munster folklore and the erosion of that group has been the most significant reason the province have failed to reach a final since.
Kidney's pragmatic game plan based around the graft of his forwards, secure set-pieces, solid defence and the boot of Ronan O'Gara cut swathes through Europe, with the highlights being the semi-final win over Leinster in '06 and final swamping of Toulouse two years later.
After a harrowing pool defeat in Castres in December '08, it was hard to envisage Leinster going onto claim their first title that season, but that loss proved the catalyst for a remarkable surge in achievement.
The established quality of Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings was augmented by the emergence of a younger wave of top talent, with Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien all coming through very powerfully.
Excellent overseas acquisitions in Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Nathan Hines, Richardt Strauss and now Brad Thorn added to the potent mix, as well as Schmidt successfully expanding an attacking game plan where the off-load is king.
A third title in four seasons would be proof that this Leinster vintage is the best the Heineken Cup has seen.