Leinster's new grit faces the ultimate test

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The Independent Online

A Heineken Cup final between Leicester and Leinster would, at the start of the season, have been seen in stark and simple terms: a contest between the Midlanders' roughneck pack and the Dubliners' swanky back division, with the odds favouring the former on the basis that the devil has all the best tunes.

How things have changed in nine months. Leicester play attractive stuff these days, while Leinster's search for the mongrel inside has been strikingly successful.

Any side capable of staring Paul O'Connell and the rest of the Munster hordes squarely in the eye and blinking second deserve to be taken seriously, and for that Leinster have a 50-50 chance of winning the European title they have spent 14 years pursuing. Even now, they would not claim that their strength is to be found in the tight-forward department, but they are seriously strong everywhere else – not least in the back row, where Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom has been a transformative figure.

With Elsom setting new standards of physicality and the likes of Leo Cullen and Cian Healy upping their performance levels to considerable effect, the Irish province no longer go into a game fearing the worst at the point of contact. Both Cullen and the breakaway forward Shane Jennings spent quality time at Leicester before recrossing the water and understand how the Tigers operate. They will also have noticed the difficulties their opponents experienced at the hands of the London Irish pack in last weekend's Premiership final.

Leicester still prevailed in that match, albeit by the most slender of margins, and the nature of that "dirty horrible win" has concentrated minds ahead of this climactic contest at Murrayfield. Even so, they have made changes to their starting line-up. Martin Castrogiovanni replaces Julian White at tight-head prop, while Alesana Tuilagi, who could probably play prop if he so chose, comes in for Johne Murphy on the wing. Once again, Geordan Murphy leads the side; once again, the Lions scrum-half Harry Ellis finds himself manacled to the bench.

Leinster have a more substantial Lions contingent and all four of them – the full-back Rob Kearney, the wing Luke Fitzgerald, the centre Brian O'Driscoll and the No 8 Jamie Heaslip – will play in Edinburgh, on the eve of departure for South Africa. Yet the most intense focus will be on the 23-year-old outside-half Johnny Sexton, chosen as a result of the serious injury suffered by Felipe Contepomi during the semi-final victory over Munster.

Contepomi would have been of enormous value against Leicester as he is just as tough as they are. Is Sexton up to it physically, as well as tactically? We will not know until this evening, and neither will he. Leinster, long renowned for the potency of their all-frills rugby, have proved themselves capable of playing without frills this season. Today requires them to be at their most basic.

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