Amlin Challenge Cup Final Preview
A few weeks after the "One More Year" chant echoed around the RDS the announcement finally came that Irish rugby's Great One had granted his supporters' plea. But no Brian O'Driscoll in the squad for the Amlin final due to the back injury suffered against Glasgow last week.
Such has life been in the Leinster camp this year. Forced to survive without core players like Sean O'Brien, Richardt Strauss, Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'arcy for extended periods this season the blues have had to suck it up and get on with it. Such perseverance has been rewarded with two finals in two weeks, the first after just a six-day turnaround following a punishing Rabo Pro 12 semi final against a teak-tough Glasgow outfit.
Stade Francais will not be in the final of the Top 14, having finished in tenth place with a defence only bettered for porousness by Agen and Mont-de-Marsan at the foot of the table.
With two French teams in the senior final and both Toulon and Clermont having qualified already by virtue of their league position the extra place earned for French rugby in the 2012-13 Heineken Cup final presently sits in Perpignan's hands. With the Amlin winner guaranteed a place and no country permitted to have more than 7 teams, Stade would directly replace Perpignan in the 2012-13 competition. Along with Perpignan there will be two other interested parties watching tonight's action intently: Connacht who will receive a Heineken Cup place in the event of a Leinster win and Wasps who will go through in the event of a Stade Francais win as the highest-ranked non-qualified side in England.
With Leinster already safely into next year's Heineken Cup it's about pride and a desire to win a cup double in front of their own fans and finishing on a hight for two great Leinster players who move on to pastures new - Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton. Only two more games for "Isa! Isa! Isa!" to volley around the RDS; only two more games for the trademarked Sexton wrap-around. With six Heineken Cups between them they will be sorely missed.
Stade have the magnificent Sergio Parisse, probably the greatest number eight in world rugby in the last decade. The Argentinian-born Italian international, a shoo-in for a Lions jersey if eligible, deserves all the praise lavished upon him.
Less high profile faces they might be but very recognisable to the Irish rugby-watching public will be Stan Wright, Paul Warwick and Felipe Contepomi. It would have been wonderful indeed to have had the 35-year-old Contepomi return to his old stomping ground to face his apprentice in a battle for silverware but the injury gods decreed otherwise. A knee injury suffered in Argentina's autumn win over Wales, viewed by some as career-threatening at the time, saw him return in the late season but too late for registration to face Leinster. Both Warwick and Wright start from the bench; if the latter comes on you can guarantee a hearty ovation from a Leinster public who will not have forgotten the contributions he made to two Heineken Cup winning campaigns.
Contepomi captained the mostly second-string Stade side sent to face Biarritz in their final league match of the season. A dead rubber for both teams, Biarritz put fifty points on them. And then Stade went back to Paris for two weeks off to rest up.
Leinster have not named a full strength side for the match; some decisions were taken out of Joe Schmidt's hands due to injury but others brought about due to an extremely tough schedule. So it's Quinn Roux over Leo Cullen and Jack McGrath over Cian Healy with a total of four substitute appearances in European play between the two younger men.
In the back row Sean O'Brien is chosen ahead of Shane Jennings. It will be interesting to see what kind of effect the absence of Jennings will have on the carrying performance of Jamie Heaslip, Leinster's Amlin final captain, who in both the Amlin and Rabo Pro 12 finals had returned to his rampaging best.
Cullen, Healy and Jennings are a classy trio of forwards to have on the bench, not forgetting Richardt Strauss who steps aside to make way for Sean Cronin to start at hooker. Jamie Hagan completes the forward substitutes.
With a nod to the parlance of Joe Schmidt's homeland Leinster have picked Ian Madigan at second five-eighth with Sexton at first-five, accompanied by Fergus McFadden at centre. McFadden has had a wonderful season combining an almost reckless disregard for his own safety in the tackle with wonderful moments like that double-chip over Biarritz in the semi-final.
Rob Kearney will relish another opportunity to remind Warren Gatland of his ability before the Lions squad gathers and wings Andrew Conway and Isa Nacewa will show the fans what they'll be missing when they move on. Conway has looked electric in recent weeks and both Munster fans and management must surely be excited with the potential of their new signing for next season.
The RDS will be heaving, the extended capacity bringing the seat numbers up just shy of the 20,000 mark. Stade will be full of pink as always, Leinster full of anticipation. And there will be people watching in Perpignan, Galway and the western parts of London looking to see where they'll end up next year. It could be a wonderful start to a great Dublin festival of rugby.
Heineken Cup Final Preview
It is the year of the French. At Dublin's Lansdowne Road ground it will be the top two finishers in France's Top 14 who face off for European glory, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon.
Both Leinster and Munster have faced Clermont Auvergne in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup over the years with some memorable moments coming from them: Paul O'Connell versus Jamie Cudmore at Thomond Park; Wesley Fofana somehow not grounding the ball in Bordeaux; the kicking nightmare of Brock James at the RDS.
Clermont are looked upon with remarkable fondness in Dublin and beyond. While they play wonderful rugby and their home record of 60 (SIXTY!) unbeaten games is one of the more remarkable ongoing records in professional sport, the fans who travel down from the heights of the Massif Central bedecked in blue and yellow are some of rugby's greatest ambassadors.
Four years ago this writer was in Biarritz watching rugby in a bar owned by a former rugby player of great local distinction . One bar became more bars - it was that kind of enjoyable weekend - and later that night two Clermont fans arrived in our midst. It didn't seem to matter that Clermont were not actually playing in Biarritz, or anywhere near Biarritz for that matter. The two lads had jerseys on with matching blue and yellow hats and were out to spread the Clermont gospel. Rugby stories and beverages were exchanged in a mixture of Basque, French and English and as the night reached an inevitably tired and emotional conclusion all were convinced that they achieved fluency in the other's native tongue, perhaps a sign of a great diplomatic success.
Clermont have put a premium on winning the tournament and their fans have travelled to away matches in great and noisy numbers in the hope of seeing them do so. Like Munster before them, the colour and enjoyment that their travelling rugby band have brought to the competition would make Clermont popular winners if they make it past Toulon.
But if Toulon were to win there would be few who would begrudge Jonny Wilkinson a trophy.
World Cup and Six Nations Grand Slam winner he might well be but in his club rugby career Wilkinson has won a Premiership trophy and two Powergen Cups, both with Newcastle. With Toulon he's been a runner up in the Top 14 and twice in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Not the most packed trophy cabinet from a sixteen-year club career. Wilkinson's move to France to become an integral part of Toulon's rise to a French and European rugby power has been hugely successful. He refused a place on the inital Lions touring party in order to dedicate himself to first finishing Toulon's season and a win in Europe's premier rugby competition would be just reward for Wilkinson's ambition and effort.
Clermont are not invincible; the club (in its various guises) had a long record of losing French championship finals before they eventually won in 2010. They lost to Leinster at quarter and semi final stages before now reaching the final but even in this season's semi they were hugely rattled when Munster scored to get within six points and did not score a single point in the final 30 minutes of the match. To a man they visibly tightened, the brio of their opening salvo - all sidesteps and audacious flicks - replaced by a nervy ending where one could sense the painful memories of the RDS and Bordeaux echoing through the team's collective consciousness. But they pulled through, and they should be all the better for the experience.
Toulon have had an odd time of it. Since scoring 9 and 7 tries in consecutive games against Sale and Cardiff respectively they've played Montpellier, Leicester and Saracens without crossing the whitewash once. In those three games it's been the Jonny Wilkinson show from both penalty and drop goal. Clermont have been far more consistent scorers in the competition, scoring at least four tries in five of their eight matches.
Look for the running of Sitiveni Sivivatue and Napalioni Nalaga on the wings and Wesley Fofana in the centre; those three lead Clermont in carries. Their fans will have hoped that club captain Aurelien Rougerie manages to shake off injury to play but if not the former Scarlet and once-capped for the All Blacks Regan King is a wonderfully talented replacement.
Jonny Wilkinson has never been the most creative out-half in terms of his play but at Toulon where he now stands possibly deeper than he ever has he doesn't have to be. Inside him at scrum half is the mercurial Freddie Michalak; outside him at first centre is the multi-talented Matt Giteau and it's he who has most creative responsibility for the Toulon backs. The 92-times capped Wallaby is still only 30 and possesses a great ability to send others through gaps.
Toulon outside centre Mathieu Bastareaud might be the most important player in this game; when he's on form he's almost unstoppable with a keen eye for a defensive misalignment, surprising pace and, combined with his 18 stones, momentum that Sir Isaac Newton decreed is quite difficult to slow down.
Morgan Parra has been his usual accurate self kicking at an 83% success rate in his eight starts with Wilkinson just a tick behind at 77%. However, the latter's form in both the quarter and semi finals has been perfect from the tee (13 from 13) with a 50% drop goal record (2 from 4) his only kicking blemish.
The engine-room contest will be fascinating - South African Bakkies Botha and former London Irish lineout king Nick Kennedy versus Canadian Jamie Cudmore and Aussie-born ex-Scottish International Nathan Hines. There's a huge amount of heft in those four guys and at least one of them will likely make a lasting imprint either in or on somebody.
Some statistical oddities that jump out include the very low number of turnovers won by players on either side. The highest number by any one player is three, shared by Julien Bonnaire and Delon Armitage in their eight starts. Compare this to Rory Best's 14 turnovers won in just six pool matches for Ulster. While some of that huge difference can be written to Ulster having far less possession than their opposition and thus far more opportunity to try to win it back it's still a quite remarkable gap.
Toulon and Clermont have both used a similar number of players in this cup run; 34 and 33 respectively. However, the breakdown of these is quite different with Clermont relying far more on a particular core of players. For Toulon only full back Delon Armitage has started every game with just another four players starting in seven of the eight games. Clermont have five who've started all eight - Benjamin Kayser, Jamie Cudmore, Julien Bonnaire, Morgan Parra and Napolioni Nalaga with a further five who've started seven of the eight.
Props have been penalised with scarcely credible frequency in this season's Heineken Cup and these teams are no exception with Andrew Sheridan and Davit Zirakashvili leading the charts for their respective teams. With Alain Rolland on the whistle this trend is likely to continue in the final. A referee who sticks to the letter of the law the Irishman's approach to the game will suit Toulon far more than Clermont.
Toulon would be perfectly happy having a penalty-lottery of a match and Alain Rolland could have a huge bearing on how the contest unfolds. In perhaps overly-simplistic terms Toulon like to kick the ball for position and pick up penalties that come their way while Clermont run the ball aggressively with a collection of backs whose combination of power, skill and undiluted Woshkabomy can be simply irresistible, as Montpellier found out to their cost in the quarter-final.
After Leinster and Stade's Friday night curtain-raiser the Heineken Cup final at Lansdowne Road has the potential to be an enthralling game of rugby. With the lack of certainty surrounding the future of the competition it would behoove any rugby fan to make time to watch it, enjoy it and think what European rugby life would be like without it.
All stats are courtesy of the Amlin Opta Index