Date: 21st May 2011
Kick-off: 16:00 (BST)
Venue: Millennium Stadium
Two former champions on Saturday afternoon will go head to head in Cardiff as they both look to win European Club rugby’s biggest prize for the second time. Northampton, winners in 2000, and Leinster, triumphant in 2009, have both played exceptionally well this season, setting up Saturday’s clash to be an absolute belter.
Leinster have looked like tournament winners since the group stages. Their level of control in all the key areas of the game has been really impressive, and that’s a testament to the growing maturity of Jonny Sexton at fly-half. In the crunch games their biggest performers always seem to stand up, and with Brian O’Driscoll passed fit, Leinster have the most important player out of the two sides fit and raring to go. The win against Toulouse in the semi-final was a gruelling, draining encounter, the type of game that nowadays you always back Leinster to win. It is only two years since a Rocky Elsom inspired outfit conquered Leicester and the Irish team in my eyes are definitely favourites.
With the Saints domestic season dying again in the play-offs, the focus is now on Europe for Northampton. Forgetting their poor strength in depth, the first choice side is an exceptional one. Accolades for Soane Tonga’huia and Chris Ashton have been deserved, and also for Tom Wood who unfortunately for Saints will miss the final in Cardiff due to a persistent leg injury. Against Leicester Saints fell apart upfront, a rarity given the way their pack has dominated so many teams this year. It will have caused as much damage mentally as physically to the Saints pack, and it won’t get any easier against Leinster. They will need to replicate the performance they produced against Perpignan, and then some.
What To Expect:
A huge forward battle. Mike Ross against Tonga’huia, Brian Mujati against Cian Healy, Leo Cullen v Courtney Lawes, there are some rather tasty confrontations in the packs. Scrum dominance is essential to both side’s platforms, but trying to pick a dominant force in that area is difficult given the quality of both sets of forwards. The same goes for the lineout, where Dylan Hartley’s throwing has been excellent all season. In the backs, Stephen Myler is prone to mentally collapse while Jonny Sexton seems to have ice running through his veins. The international experience in the midfield of Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and the iconic Brian O’Driscoll overshadows the Saints trio of Myler, James Downey and Jon Clarke, and for me this is where it will be won and lost.
All Eyes On:
Sean O’Brien has had an excellent breakthrough season. Much has been made about how he has filled Rocky Elsom boots, and the fact that the club felt that they didn’t need to sign anyone is proof of his talent. A key player for Ireland in the World Cup this year, O’Brien seemed to relish the big stage of the Six Nations, and he should step up again tomorrow.
For Saints, Dylan Hartley needs to be at his best not just with regard to his skills, but his leadership. Regularly touted by Jim Mallinder as a future England captain, this has been the kiwi-born hooker’s best season to date. He’ll face a big challenge against Richardt Strauss, but he’s more than up to it.
Head to Head: Isa Nacewa v Ben Foden
Nacewa’s stunning try in the semi-final sent Leinster on their way to victory against Leicester, and the full back has got better with time during his stint in Dublin. Always an excellent kicker from hand, his pace is deceptive. As for Foden, his attacking prowess has always been a constant in his game, but his defence has improved hugely this season. Gone is that doubt about whether he’ll take the high ball, because he always seems to catch it. A great clash between two very exciting players.
Such a big game, such a great final. Northampton have played some wonderful rugby this season, but they are not as complete as Leinster. The Irish province are at their peak, and with O’Driscoll passed fit, the have just that extra touch of class. Leinster by 7.