If Leinster, reigning Heineken Cup champions and just about the most effective team of any description to be found anywhere in Europe, were able to stare down semi-final opponents as powerful as Clermont Auvergne in front of a predominantly French audience as intimidating as it was raucous, victory over the third best side in Ireland should be a formality. That's the theory. In practice, things may be just a little different at Twickenham this evening. Who says so? Stephen Ferris, for one.
"It's been a long journey these last four or five years, getting here from a point where we were sitting at the bottom of the Celtic League and not even making the quarter-finals of this tournament," the Ulster flanker said yesterday. "In coming out of that slump, we've learned a hell of a lot about winning – which, as Richard Cockerill [the Leicester director of rugby] pointed out just recently, is the only thing that matters when you're involved in games like this one. The last two rounds have taught us even more. We went to Munster as underdogs in the quarter-final, while Edinburgh were a banana skin in the last four. We won both matches. And, as they say, winning is a habit."
Ferris, effectively playing on one leg because there is precious little in the way of ligament where his right knee used to be, will be one of the central figures in the first all-Irish final in the 17-year history of rugby's most highly charged, passionately partisan tournament. If he can subdue his rival back-rower and close personal friend Sean O'Brien – if, to be more precise, he can achieve something seemingly beyond most players and referees by preventing the ultra-effective forward from Carlow having things all his own way in the tackle area – today's showpiece could yet be a close-run contest.
"Sean was European Player of the Year last season and he's an unbelievable operator," acknowledged Ferris. "I'm hoping it will be a good match-up. We'll certainly clash a few times, even though we roomed together during the last World Cup and we're on the phone to each other every week or two. When the final whistle goes, we'll be friends again." In other words, the "before and during" will be as ferocious as the "after" will be convivial.
Leinster, chasing a third title in four years and hoping to give their All Black lock Brad Thorn a unique hat-trick of titles (the granite-faced New Zealander is already a World Cup and Super 15 winner), start as hot favourites, but the Heineken Cup rarely produces a one-sided final. No fewer than 12 of the 16 deciders to date have ended with the teams separated by a single score or less and two of the four exceptions – the Wasps-Leicester game in 2007 and the Leinster-Northampton match a year ago – were far closer than the scoreboard made out.
While the champions have managed to nurse their walking wounded back to fitness in time for the big occasion – astonishing, the recuperative properties of a high-profile appearance at Twickenham – the outsiders are in the happy position of welcoming Chris Henry back into their starting line-up. Together with Ferris and the been-there-and-done-plenty South Africa No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, the flanker from Belfast plays a brand of rugged, claustrophobic rugby tailor-made to cramp the style of opponents with the attacking weaponry Leinster bring to the conflict. Henry has been struggling for fitness, but along with the recently suspended All Black prop John Afoa, he is ready and available for this one.
This is Ireland's time in the Heineken Cup: between them, Leinster and Munster have claimed four of the last six titles. But Ulster were the first side from the island to lay hands on the trophy, back in the English boycott year of 1999, and if it is not likely that they will be champions again tonight, it is far from impossible.Reuse content