Battle lines drawn for Heineken Cup finale
May 22, 2009
Who will get their hands on the Heineken Cup at Murrayfield? © Getty Images
Another gruelling domestic season will reach a climax at Murrayfield on Saturday when Leicester and Leinster go head-to-head for the European club crown.
A packed house in Edinburgh, and a global audience of millions, is assured as the Tigers, fresh from their Guinness Premiership Final victory over London Irish last weekend go in search of a notable double against first-time finalists Leinster.
Victory for the English champions would not only see them emulate the Leicester sides that claimed both league and Heineken Cup success in 2001 and 2002 but they would also join French giants Toulouse as the only three-time winners of Europe's premier club competition.
The Tigers head to Murrayfield with plenty of momentum after 12 wins from 13 games, including the dramatic and historic shoot-out victory over Cardiff Blues in the semi-finals and appear to have peaked at just the right time. But they failed to hit top gear against the Exiles at Twickenham last weekend and that success was only their third victory in eight successive finals.
In contrast, Leinster completed their Magners League schedule with a low-key clash against the Dragons - opting to rest many of the front line players that powered past Munster in their own memorable clash in the last four.
The real test for the Irish side will be to conjure a performance that matches that Croke Park victory in terms of intensity, passion and historical significance. Years of pent-up frustration inspired a stunning performance to derail the European favourites and the pressure is on to prove that was not a one-off.
The talismanic Brian O'Driscoll, enjoying a vintage year, and the rampaging Rocky Elsom are just two formidable weapons in the Leinster arsenal and their contribution will be key to any victory. Leicester too have many potential match-winners at their disposal. Captain Geordan Murphy underlined his all-round class with a man of the match display from fullback at Twickenham last time out while fly-half Sam Vesty's star continues to rise following his England call-up this week.
As expected the big guns have returned as they look to mark their first appearance in the final with a win. Lions-in-waiting O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip will line up against the Tigers while their other South Africa-bound player Rob Kearney must make do with a place on the bench.
Coach Michael Chieka has opted to retain the services of Isa Nacewa at fullback while the only other change sees Jonathan Sexton claim the No.10 shirt in the absence of the unlucky Felipe Contepomi whose Leinster career ended with a knee injury suffered during the victory over Munster. In addition, in-form Elsom will also line-up for Leinster after an eventful week that saw him escape injury in a car crash.
Adding a further element to an intriguing match-up are the presence of former Leicester favourites - Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings - in the Leinster ranks and the fact Dublin-born Murphy will lead the Tigers into battle.
Leicester boss Richard Cockerill - who deserves huge praise for his part in the Tigers' success this season - has bolstered his line-up with winger Alesana Tuilagi and prop Martin Castrogiovanni - with both players adding a significant physical presence to the backline and pack respectively.
Tuilagi returns after completing a five-week suspension for a late tackle on Bath's Nick Abendanon in the quarter-final at the Walkers Stadium and steps into Johne Murphy's place. Castrogiovanni is restored to the front row after missing the Premiership final victory with a neck injury with Julian White joining Murphy on the bench. Murphy will once again lead the side and along with lock Ben Kay and replacement flanker Lewis Moody will be chasing Heineken Cup glory for the fourth time.
Leicester come into the clash with a narrow 5-4 lead in their previous meetings - but they shared the honours in last season's pool stage clashes. Those looking for an historic precedent may also like to know this will be only the third Anglo-Irish final - with the score standing at 2-0 to the English clubs - Northampton Saints and Leicester beating Munster 9-8 in 2000 and 15-9 in 2002 respectively.
Both sides have shown breath-taking attacking ability and a willingness to do it the hard way on their way to the final and we can only hope that this final delivers a spectacle worthy of the occasion - but please no penalty shoot-out. Two of the previous finals have required extra time to determine the winner and Toulouse won both matches - against Cardiff in 1996 and Stade Francais Paris in 2005.
We can expect another bruising encounter with the increasingly important battle of the breakdown set to offer a clear indication as to who will be crowned European champions. How much their most recent success took out of the Tigers and how short of big-match sharpness Leinster are only time will tell.
If Leinster hit their Croke Park heights again then they will be a very tough side to beat however the battle-hardened Tigers will fancy their chances and their big-match experience could well be the telling factor.
Leicester Tigers: G Murphy [capt]; S Hamilton, A Erinle, D Hipkiss, A Tuilagi; S Vesty, J Dupuy; M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni, T Croft, B Kay, C Newby, B Woods, J Crane
Replacements: B Kayser, J White, L Deacon, L Moody, H Ellis, M Smith, J Murphy
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Whitaker; C Healy, B Jackman, S Wright, L Cullen [capt], M O'Kelly, R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip
Replacements: J Fogarty, R McCormack, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Keogh, R Kearney, G Dempsey
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Whitehouse, Hugh Watkins (Wales)
"I had a couple of injuries before but this was different." Tom Hamilton talks to Scott Williams about the O'Driscoll tackle, Wales and Scarlets
"To be the best it's not about the flash stuff, it's actually about everything done at a very high level." Tom Hamilton on the England squad
Huw Richards rewinds to 1864 to mark the birth of Welsh rugby's first authentic star - Arthur Gould
Michael Cheika has succeeded in becoming the Wallabies coach under his own terms, writes Greg Growden