Having become accustomed to Irish sides in European club rugby’s annual showpiece, this year’s Heineken Cup Final is going to feel a little strange.
Only one of the past four seasons’ showdowns has not featured Irish representatives, 2007 being the exception.
Last year’s winners were Leinster who got the Murrayfield verdict against Leicester Tigers.
In 2008, at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Munster beat Toulouse, thereby claiming their second Heineken Cup, their first having been won two years earlier when, at the same venue, they beat Biarritz Olympique.
Tomorrow night in Paris, Munster’s victims on those two occasions go tete a tete.
Biarritz versus Toulouse — the first all-French final since 2005 — at Stade de France promises to be something special.
It’s the first time since 2001 that France has hosted the final and it’s the third all-French shoot-out in 15 years of Heineken Cup action.
Tellingly, Toulouse have won each of the two previous French-only finals in which they were involved — 22-17 against Perpignan in Dublin (2003) and 18-12 against Stade Francais in Edinburgh (2005). They are aiming for a hat-trick at the expense of rivals from the Basque region.
Tomorrow will be Toulouse’s sixth Heineken Cup final appearance, a record.
Biarritz, in contrast, have been in only one — that 23-19 defeat by Munster in Cardiff four years ago — and with the memory of that day having haunted them ever since, they were delighted to have beaten the same Irish opponents three weeks ago in this season’s semi-final. Pay back time.
The hero of that triumph was back row warrior Imanol Harinordoquy whose performance — despite playing with a grotesquely encased broken nose — was awesome. Put bluntly, Munster were out-Munstered.
Damien Traille missed out on that win having fractured his forearm — an injury which has sadly ruled him out of tomorrow’s showdown, too.
But the brilliant centre will be on the field in spirit if not body.
“We want to go one better than the final in 2006. That defeat hurt us badly then and still does now because when you reach a final and you trip up on the very last step it is deeply frustrating,” he said.
“Since then our group has grown in maturity, we have become aware of a lot more things and in the end it is the most realistic and focused team who gets the win.
“This a totally different Heineken Cup final from 2006 because it is against Toulouse, the triple Heineken Cup champions, who know how to handle such big occasions. They have a lot more experience than we do but we will play with our own values and qualities to do the best we can in the final.”
Underdogs, yes, but don’t write them off as no-hopers.