Potential and recent form point in one direction only
Leinster's steel has served them well this season and can do so again in Cardiff, says Jim Glennon
D-Day for Leinster. Having successfully cleared their path to the Magners League final with an impressive performance against Ulster on Friday, their total attention now turns to Saturday next in Cardiff.
A sticky opening month to the season, at the end of which some pundits were calling for the head of new coach Joe Schmidt, provided an uncharacteristically difficult start to the campaign but this Leinster side has really come good under his tutelage and played some magnificent rugby of late.
Their path to the final is strewn with the detritus of fallen heavyweights: Racing Metro, Clermont, Saracens, Leicester, and Toulouse. The 2009 champions have indeed done it the hard way. The formbook, in any sport, is the ultimate guide and the respective paths to the final speak volumes. Northampton, on the other hand, had to deal with Edinburgh, Cardiff, Castres, Ulster, and Perpignan.
There's a certain steel about this group which I haven't seen in a Leinster team before. Led superbly by Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll, they combine fierce bravery in the face of opponents' best efforts while maintaining a lethal capacity to strike offensively at the slightest opportunity.
It has been said that Leinster and Toulouse are the two best teams in Europe, and their game would have made a more fitting final than semi-final. But while it was a fantastic game of rugby, that argument does Northampton Saints a considerable disservice. The Saints' current team may not yet be seasoned competition heavyweights but they are nonetheless a team of real quality, particularly up front and in their back three. They will, undoubtedly, target Leinster's scrum -- their front row of Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati is probably the best in the competition, as they showed in the demolition job they did on their Perpignan counterparts, a unit including Nicolas Mas, in the semi-final.
The battle of the back threes will be another interesting one. Paul Diggin, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden have been ruthlessly effective, both individually and as a unit, right through the Premiership season. Opponents give them a sniff at their peril, but they have been shown to be error-prone under pressure, as applied for example by Ireland in the game against England in the Aviva earlier this season. Ashton especially had a day he'll prefer to forget with Jonathan Sexton really getting under his skin. The Leinster outhalf will look to repeat the dose on Saturday.
Similarly, the Northampton outhalf Stephen Myler, while quite an accomplished footballer, is nonetheless unproven at this level, and will be another who Leinster will target.
There will be a number of other personal battles, the most intriguing among them that of Gordon D'Arcy versus James Downey at inside centre. Downey has certainly taken the road less travelled to make it to this stage, having spent periods at Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Calvisano, before joining Northampton when they were in the English second tier. It's a testament to his quality and professionalism that he has finally arrived on the biggest stage in the club game, and that his contribution has been an essential element of his side's success.
That mightn't be a whole pile of consolation for him if he comes out on the losing side, but his career has been quite an odyssey and his match-up with D'Arcy will be a very distinct clash of styles. Downey is a vital cog in Northampton's machine and his ability to get them over the gainline in midfield is key; it's from this platform that all of their attacks are launched. The Wexford man, however, is well used to such match-ups at this stage of his career and will need no reminding of what to expect, or indeed of how to deal with it.
Ultimately, however, despite all the threats Northampton possess, I can see only one winner. Leinster have the ability, and the form, and they should nonetheless emerge on the right side of the scoreline. Leinster have shown themselves to be a top-class outfit this season and I just can't see anything but a second Heineken Cup for Leinster in three seasons.
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