The Heineken Cup Final is upon us. Right at the start of the competition, I appeared on a five-man panel and we were all asked for our potential tournament winners.
Four out of five selected French teams: two went for Toulouse, two for Clermont, and I was last to go, faced with a serious dilemma.
Toulouse is always a safe bet which made it a dull choice, I had backed Clermont the previous season and they had let me down, so my choice demanded a bit more originality.
My outside bet was Northampton Saints for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I like the way the Saints play. You might expect me to laud Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, but ironically it’s the forwards who float my boat.
Big men like Soane Tonga’uiha, explosive yet incredibly skilful, the raw and uncomplicated aggression of Courtney Lawes, the consistency of Roger Wilson and Phil Dowson who invariably take the right options, aspire to keep the ball alive and rarely let their standards drop.
Secondly, I looked at the draw.
Northampton’s Group was relatively straightforward compared to the rest, therefore a home quarter-final would be a realistic goal. At that stage, statistics show that home advantage counts for a lot, and I reckoned that if the Saints made the semi-finals, then it’s Cup rugby where anything could happen.
In this regard, the respective paths of Leinster and Northampton to the Final could not have been more different. Northampton’s biggest challenge came from the Cardiff Blues, then Ulster (inexperienced and for whom just being in the quarters was a massive achievement), and then Perpignan (a capricious French team who had no record of winning in England).
By comparison, Leinster smashed their way to a home quarter-final by overcoming Clermont, Racing Metro and Saracens, all of whom have excelled in domestic competition.
Then, notching up the scalps of Leicester Tigers and Toulouse means that the Dublin team has beaten the major heavyweights in the competition. In short, Northampton have had it easy and Leinster have got there the hard way.
A certain Stuart Barnes was on the same panel. The ultimate devil’s advocate, he reprimanded me on my choice, which he described as ‘unintelligent’, as there was no way the Saints could win the Heineken Cup with their current half-back partnership. I couldn’t admit it at the time, but I tended to agree with him.
Last Saturday’s Premiership semi-final between the Saints and Leicester Tigers provided further proof that this assertion bears credence.
In what was a brutal game, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs steered a course of calm amidst the mayhem and exerted worthy control over the action.
It was a stark reminder that international class in those key decision-making positions can make a big difference.
The England half-back pairing gave crucial direction at key moments, and their Irish counterparts, Sexton and Reddan, will want to have a similar advantage over the Saints’ Steven Myler and Lee Dickson.
Of course, it made a huge difference that Leicester managed to get the upper hand in the physical exchanges.
By this I do not mean the
right fist of Manu Tuilagi, but the battle was as close to rugby pugilism as you can get.
It is notable that the Tigers suffered a similar fate at the hands of Leinster in the Heineken quarter-final at the Aviva.
Logic would suggest that if Leicester beat the Saints physically, and Leinster did the same to the Tigers, then it is going to be a tough day at the office for Jim Mallinder’s men.
After such a long season I wonder whether the greatest difference might actually be the effects of last weekend’s action. The Saints were involved in a titanic struggle at Welford Road, both physically and mentally, and it will be an enormous task to fully recover.
In contrast, Leinster put Ulster to the sword with relative ease. Yes, there were a few niggling injuries, which I expect to be resolved before kick-off on Saturday, but 100% effort over the full 80 minutes was not required.
An extra day to recover, confidence sky-high, and the reassurance that their players, with Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien to the fore, have dominated the giants of Europe and come through victorious.
None of that original five-man panel expected Leinster to even come through their qualification Group. While I feel content that my original tip have done themselves justice, I expect Leinster to prove us all wrong and achieve the greatness that will come with winning the trophy twice within three years.