Leinster v Ulster, Heineken Cup Final, Twickenham, May 18
Day of destiny for Irish duo
May 18, 2012
Cometh the hour: Can Leinster talisman Brian O'Driscoll rise to the occasion of this Saturday's Heineken Cup decider? © Getty Images
"You'd want to have a limb falling off really to not play in the Heineken Cup final."
The words of Leinster stalwart Brian O'Driscoll tell you everything you need to know about the battle for European club rugby's biggest prize that will culminate with his side's showdown with Irish rivals Ulster at Twickenham on Saturday - but that quote is only half the story as far as O'Driscoll is concerned.
The talismanic centre had keyhole surgery on an injured knee less than a week ago - a procedure he has dismissed as merely a "little trim". In normal circumstances the patient in question would be advised to take up to three weeks to recuperate but this is O'Driscoll, for whom extraordinary is second nature, and the Heineken Cup, that has a long history of nurturing something special be that from players, teams or fans.
This season's competition has rarely failed to live up to that expectation from Munster fly-half Ronan O'Gara's dramatic injury-time drop goal against Northampton in the opening round of action to Clermont Auvergne centre Wesley Fofana's agonising failure to ground the ball in the dying moments of an epic semi-final clash with Leinster. Charged with writing the latest thrilling chapter in the history of the competition are two sides determined to make history.
Defending champions Leinster stand on the brink of greatness. Only one other side has notched back-to-back Heineken Cup crowns, Leicester in 2001 and 2002, and while French giants Toulouse can reflect on four European titles, no team can boast three victories in four years.
The odds are stacked in the favour of Joe Schmidt's side. They have not been beaten in this season's competition with fly-half Jonathan Sexton saving their blushes against Montpellier back in November. That unbeaten run actually extends back to last season's competition - to where Clermont bettered them in the pool stages - and includes a stunning comeback against Northampton to lay claim to the sizeable Heineken Cup silverware for the second time following their earlier success against Leicester in the 2009 finale.
That priceless experience is sure to be crucial against an Ulster side returning to the title-decider for the first time since 1999 but that is not the only trump card the Dubliners possess. Leinster dominated the race for the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs, topping the table at the end of a campaign that included two wins over Ulster, and remain on course for a notable double having accounted for Glasgow in the final four. That form may not be such a valuable guide in the cauldron of a Cup final, but make no mistake, Leinster possess a number of in-form match-winners.
The class of O'Driscoll is not in question but he has played second fiddle for much of this campaign due to injury with his season only beginning in March. The influence of Sexton cannot be underestimated with his all-round game so often the driving force behind Leinster's all-action game, orchestrated by the free-thinking Schmidt and Sexton, that so many have struggled to contain this term. He has benefitted from a return to top form by fullback Rob Kearney whose spike in form and confidence were there for all to see as his long-range drop goal in the semi-final victory over Clermont sailed through the posts. The latter missed his side's latest outing but has emerged from that injury cloud to take his place in the starting line-up.
That ability to dominate with ball in hand does not come easy and a line-up that features the likes Cian Healy, Brad Thorn and Jamie Heaslip offers a not-so-subtle hint as to where they have laid the foundation for another run at the title. And even without the ball, most notably in the closing moments of their semi-final triumph, they set a defensive standard few can match and fewer can breach. The addition of Rugby World Cup-winning lock Thorn to the mix mid-season was an intriguing - and no doubt expensive - move and one that has paid dividends but Ulster also know a thing or two about influential overseas imports.
In a season that has often been dominated by the Irish Rugby Football Union's attempts to limit the impact of foreign players, the success of Ulster's multi-national squad is quite telling. South African international Ruan Pienaar has set the bar in many aspects this season most notably with boot and Leinster will be all-too aware that any indiscipline is sure to be punished by the scrum-half. The presence of his compatriot Pedrie Wanneburg and former All Blacks prop John Afoa make it increasingly likely that another South African import - captain Johan Muller - may lift the trophy at Twickenham. But they are not short of home-grown talent either with the likes of Chris Henry, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Craig Gilroy anything but make-weights having shone this season.
As daunting the prospect of tackling a side they have only ever beaten once and as patchy their league form, Ulster know how to deliver when it matters most. Anyone not convinced by a home victory over Clermont and an emphatic demolition of Leicester only need to look to their quarter-final success against Munster at Thomond Park where a superb defensive effort finally saw them home.
As a result, a side so used to watching their Irish neighbours vie for European honours find themselves on the brink of joining an elite club as two-time winners of this competition. Add in the emotional impact of a somewhat questionable decision to ask coach Brian McLaughlin to step into an academy role at the end of the season and you have the makings of a special performance and a special game.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.