The Heineken Cup’s baby brother reaches its climax this weekend as Leinster face Stade Français at the RDS in Dublin. The men from Paris have competed in three European finals in their time, but are yet to win one. They lost the Heineken Cup final twice, before falling at this same hurdle in an agonising 19-18 defeat to Harlequins two years ago. Leinster, on the other hand, are triple Heineken Cup champions and have dominated the RaboDirect PRO12 for the past few seasons – if not necessarily winning it every time.
Stade have slipped far from the glory days of a decade or so ago, when they regularly found themselves at the summit of the Top 14 and the latter stages of the Heineken Cup. Despite still having one of the biggest budgets in the league, they finished this season in tenth, equal on points with lowly Grenoble.
That said, they have been impressive in this competition, having lost just once. Their route here has included an impressive away win at Bath and the conquering of Top 14 rivals Perpignan. There are a couple of notable absentees from their line-up, such as France captain Pascal Papé who is still injured and international prop David Attoub, but they can still call on the proven quality of players like Julien Dupuy, Hugo Bonneval and Jérome Porical.
They also have an immensely exciting bench to call upon if necessary. Fijian flyer Waisea Vuidravuwalu will still be giving Bath fans nightmares after his brilliant brace against them in the quarter finals, while in Paul Warwick and Julien Arias they have experience and flair to boot.
Key player: Sergio Parisse
A boringly predictable pick, it would have been lovely to nominate someone else as Stade’s key player. Put simply though, no one else has the quality, experience and temperament to have the sort of effect on a game that the Italian captain can. We have seen his ability to raise a mostly average Italian team to greater things on the international stage – if Stade are to have any chance of overcoming Leinster in Dublin, he will have to do likewise with them.
Leinster are competing for the double, with the final of the RaboDirect PRO12 to come the week after this one at the very same ground. The schedulers have been kind to them, effectively giving them home advantage – although a large Parisian contingent is likely to travel over.
They have named a fairly experimental team, with regulars Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss named on the bench and Sean Cronin (who is no slouch in experience terms, to be fair) and Jack McGrath starting. Experienced campaigners Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings will also bring valuable experience off the bench, either to invigorate the team if they are losing, or calm and consolidate a lead if they are ahead.
Of course the big selection news is that Brian O’Driscoll has failed a fitness test and will play no part in the game. After signing a new one-year contract extension today, it is a shame the great man will not take to the pitch. Fergus McFadden is tasked with filling his sizeable shoes, and his partnership in the midfield with Ian Madigan is one that will excite Leinster and Ireland fans alike as they look to the future.
Key player: Rob Kearney
Kearney has two weeks to play himself into Lions test match contention – after the Six Nations, he is most people’s third choice fullback. With Julien Dupuy at scrum-half for Stade he is likely to be kept busy, as the little Frenchman is more of a canny operator than a dazzling footballer, and will keep Kearney busy with box kicks galore. If Kearney can field these well (which he will – he’s one of the best under the high ball in the world) and then run them back with a bit of flair, he could yet make a charge for that Lions 15 jersey.
Everything really points towards a Leinster win. They are in Dublin, they have five Lions in their squad and they are in great form. You would be a fool to write Stade Français off completely, however, as they have shown already this season that they are capable of upping their game in this competition. That said, it should be a relatively regulation win for Leinster at the RDS. Leinster by 8.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43