The PRO12 final is upon us, the season to end with an all-Irish affair at the RDS. When the season started all those months ago Leinster were the twice-defending Heineken Cup champions and Ulster began putting together a magnificent 13-match unbeaten run, ended by the visit of Northampton in Ravenhill in which Tommy Bowe suffered a serious knee injury from which he has recovered to both play in the PRO12 final and be chosen for the Lions tour to Australia.
Leinster have chosen an exciting midfield with Jonathan Sexton at fly-half, Madigan at 12 and Brian O'Driscoll recovered from his back injury to take his usual place at outside centre. Andrew Conway loses out to a positional switch for Fergus McFadden who brings his all-action game back to the wing. The Munster-bound Conway has been in excellent form recently ahead of his move to Munster and will be a serious weapon off the bench if needed.
In the Leinster pack while Sean O'Brien was not passed fit to play both Leo Cullen and Cian Healy are restored to the starting XV with Shane Jennings playing at open-side.
With Luke Marshall being held out of rugby for the summer due to his concussion woes and Craig Gilroy having a groin problem Ulster nevertheless have an exciting back line of their own. Stuart Olding and Darren Cave are in the centre with the strong running of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble outside them. Ulster too have a weapon on the bench in the not insignificant shape of Ian Henderson; Robbie Diack preferred at the blind side in Ulster's starting lineup.
Rory Best, left out of the Lions tour party, has had a curious season. Having fed an Ulster lineout that was awful in Heineken Cup play and held up as a key reason for Ireland's recent lineout woes the Ulster hooker trucked along with a very healthy 92% throw success rate in his nine PRO12 appearances, losing an average of just one per game. On the Leinster side Richardt Strauss has a similarly respectable 88% throw success in PRO12 play.
Of Leinster's four place-kickers on the field (not counting Rob Kearney, who with practice and training surely should have become one) the one perhaps most in form is actually Ian Madigan who has made his last 21 consecutive attempts at goal in the PRO12. Madigan, spoken of as a possible Lions bolter such was his scintillating form in the league, has given the Leinster faithful some solace when thinking that their beloved Jonathan Sexton would be playing in France next season. Isa Nacewa too will depart Irish shores, leaving a gaping hole in their squad that Zane Kirchner will do well to fill. And it's Joe Schmidt's final match in blue before he turns to pull on a green tracksuit instead.
The number eight battle will be fascinating; Nick Williams has bowled over opponents and offloaded left and right with ball in hand this season and has had a hand in many turnovers along the way (9 in 17 games). Heaslip has been much less explosive but tidier; tackling more effectively, rarely making a turnover, conceding penalties at half the rate of Williams and committing far, far fewer handling errors. WIth Shane Jennings free to battle Chris Henry it will be interesting to see if Heaslip takes more ball in hand as he did in late season games against both Biarritz and Glasgow.
Ulster and Leinster's regular season records were similar in a number of ways: 17 league wins apiece, 26 and 27 points per game respectively with an average of just under three tries scored per match. In Ulster's four losses they managed to secure losing bonus points on three occasions; their thirteen fewer tries conceded than Leinster a welcome help with this.
The semi-finals were somewhat different affairs; Ulster taking an early lead over the Scarlets which they never gave up and Leinster having a massively physical match against a Glasgow side who proved throughout the season that they are no longer also-rans in this league. The Glaswegians are third tier seeds for next season's Heineken Cup and nobody in their right minds will want them in their pool.
For a third consecutive season Leinster are facing into a league final after winning a European final the week before. But even during the most successful run in the history of any Irish province Leinster have managed to end the last three seasons poorly by losing three league finals; once to Munster in Thomond Park sandwiched by two losses on their home turf at the hands of the Ospreys.
It's five years since Leinster won their "domestic" league; seven years for Ulster. While Ulster fans will not look back at their most recent final encounter in Twickenham with great fondness, that last Ulster league title was worth remembering.
It's May 26th, 2006. There are 78 minutes on the clock in the Liberty Stadium when Kieran Campbell passes back to David Humphreys in the pocket who strikes a high, hopeful 40 metre drop goal that hits both posts before dropping gratefully over the bar. Ulster saw out the final few seconds to win 19-17 in Wales and win the league title by a point. From Leinster, of course.
Leinster will hope that 2013 will be fourth time lucky, giving Sexton, Nacewa and Schmidt an appropriate send-off. But this is an Ulster side determined that a season that started so full of hope should not go unrewarded; to give one of their brothers a fitting send-off himself.
R.I.P. Nevin Spence (1990-2012)
N.B. All stats courtesy of Autograffeg ltd (AGFX)