Leinster and Stade eye Challenge Cup glory
May 16, 2013
In-form Leinster No.8 Jamie Heaslip is set for a showdown with Stade Francais counterpart Sergio Parisse © Getty Images
Leinster and Stade Francais will go head-to-head for this season's Amlin Challenge Cup crown at the RDS in Dublin on Friday night.
The Irish side are no strangers to success on the European stage having won the Heineken Cup three times in the last four seasons but this is the first time they have graced the final of the second tier competition. In contrast, Stade Francais have found euro glory agonisingly elusive most notably against Harlequins in the 2011 Challenge Cup finale but also in two Heineken Cup title-deciders.
Leinster would clearly prefer to be defending their Heineken Cup crown at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday but the chance to clinch a new piece of silverware - and the first part of what they hope will be a Challenge Cup-PRO12 double - in front of their own fans will no doubt prove to be a powerful incentive. However, they will have to do it without centre Brian O'Driscoll who has failed to recover from a back spasm suffered on PRO12 duty last weekend.
Stade Francais, who have won three of their four previous meetings with their Irish rivals, are not short of inspiration themselves with this game representing their last chance to qualify for next season's Heineken Cup having finished a disappointing 10th in the Top 14. But the French side are unlikely to get an easy ride with Leinster having the luxury of home advantage although that does not come with any guarantees as two PRO12 final defeats in the last three seasons illustrates.
Leinster - Player to Watch: Jonathan Sexton will leave Leinster at the end of the season for Top 14 side Racing Metro and will no doubt be determined to leave on a winning note with an Amlin and PRO12 double sure to be in his sights. Can he steer his side to yet another piece of silverware and reassure British & Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland he is in a rich vein of form?
Leinster - Team News: Sean Cronin starts at hooker in a pack which includes seven Irish qualified Irish forwards. South African Quinn Roux partners Devin Toner at second row, with Rhys Ruddock coming into the back-row alongside the fit again Sean O'Brien and No.8 Jamie Heaslip, who will captain the side. Fergus McFadden forms a midfield partnership with Ian Madigan in the injury-enforced absence of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy who is sidelined with a calf injury. Isaac Boss is paired at half-back alongside Jonathan Sexton, while Andrew Conway joins Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney in the outside back slots. Leo Cullen is included on an experienced bench which includes the likes of fellow international forwards Cian Healy, Shane Jennings and Richardt Strauss.
Stade Francais - Player to Watch: Italian international Sergio Parisse is a true giant of the game but damaged his reputation earlier this season with an ugly rant at a referee that led to a lengthy ban. Can he return to the headlines for all the right reasons with an eye-catching display in Dublin?
Stade Francais - Team News: Captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse is the only survivor from Stade's final Top 14 outing of the season against Biarritz earlier this month. Julien Dupuy returns to the No.9 shirt having recovered from a calf injury and will partner Jules Plisson at half-back. Jerome Porical is set to resume the kicking duties at fullback, Jeremy Sinzelle and Hugo Bonneval come onto the wings and Geoffrey Doumayrou and Paul Williams form the midfield partnership. Aled De Malmanche, Laurent Sempere and Rabah Slimani pack down in the front row with Scott Lavalla and Gerhard Mostert named as locks. David Lyons and Pierre Rabadan complete the back-row.
Key Battle: While the kicking duel between Leinster fly-half Jonathan Sexton and Stade fullback Jerome Porical is sure to be pivotal, the showdown between rival No.8s - Leinster's Jamie Heaslip and Stade's Sergio Parisse - is set to be an equally important indicator as to which side will come out on top with the player who dominates the contest most likely to be lifting the silverware come full-time.
Trivia: The biggest attendance for an Amlin Challenge Cup final was the figure of 48,990 that flocked to the Stade Velodrom in Marseille for Cardiff Blues' 28-21 victory over Touon in 2010.
Stats: Leinster's Jamie Heaslip has made more carries (109) than any other player in European club rugby this season.
"It's new territory for us as a squad but it's better to be in it than not in it. We could have been having a weekend off but instead we're playing in a European final. That's something to look forward to."
"They have got fewer weaknesses than most teams but I lived a beautiful experience this winter with Italy against Ireland when we were not favourites and we won that Six Nations match."
Prediction: Expect Leinster to channel the emotion and energy of a packed RDS and claim yet another European title.
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