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The 17th Heineken Cup Final at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday is a strictly Irish affair but the eyes of the rugby world will be focused on the battle between defending champions Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby to claim the globe’s most coveted club trophy.
The northern hemisphere’s blue riband club tournament comes to a climax at the home of English rugby with the guarantee that the silverware will go on display in an Irish trophy cabinet for the fifth time in seven seasons and with Leinster bidding to be crowned European champions for an unprecedented third time in four seasons.
By contrast 1999 champions Ulster, the first Irish club to win the tournament, have ended a 13-year wait and are through to only their second final appearance.
It is the first all-Irish final in the history of the tournament with both clubs taking major scalps on the road in the knock-out stages to qualify for the prestigious showpiece match.
Ulster beat former double champions Munster Rugby 22-16 at Thomond Park in the quarter-finals and then found that another 22 point haul was good enough to account for Edinburgh Rugby 22-19 in the Dublin semi-final.
Leinster romped to a 34-3 quarter-final win over Cardiff Blues but then had to dig deep to hold out for a 19-15 victory over French giants ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Bordeaux semi-final.
It all adds up to Leinster reaching the final unbeaten with seven wins and a draw and in with the chance of being the first club to go through a Heineken Cup campaign without suffering a loss.
Ulster have arrived in the final after qualifying for the knock-out stages as a Pool runner-up and have All Blacks prop John Afoa available again following his four-week suspension.
But while the critical forward aerial battle will see fellow All Black and 2011 World Cup winner Brad Thorn and Leinster captain Leo Cullen up against former Springbok captain Johann Muller and the promising Dan Tuohy, the goal kicking duel between Jonny Sexton – the 2011 Heineken Cup Final Man of the Match – and Springbok Ruan Pienaar could be the difference.
Heineken Man of the Match Pienaar kicked a perfect six from six against Edinburgh while Sexton has contributed 88 points to Leinster’s bid to match Leicester Tigers’ 2001 and 2002 feat in successfully defending their title.
Leinster have the target of a European and domestic double in their sights with finals on successive weekends while Ulster go into their one chance for glory having been free to focus exclusively on Saturday’s showdown.
Ulster’s South African trio is made up of inspirational captain Muller, Pienaar and back row forward Pedrie Wannenburg with the final Wannenburg’s last appearance in an Ulster jersey before taking up a new contract in France and the Springbok is determined to try and leave with the trophy safely under lock and key in the Ravenhill cabinet.
For their part, Joe Schmidt’s champions have that triple title as their target in front of a watching world audience in over 100 countries.
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A record Heineken Cup Final crowd of 81,774 saw Leinster Rugby win the top European club rugby title for the third time in four years and become only the second side in the tournament’s history to successfully defend their crown.
The only team in the previous 16 season’s to be able to hang on to the Heineken Cup was Martin Johnson’s Leicester side of 2002. Now Leo Cullen’s men have done it three times in four years and the Leinster skipper became the first man to lift the Heineken Cup three times.
Their amazing effort in the first all-Irish final also allowed them to break a number of Heineken Cup Final records. Their 42 points overtook the 34 scored by Leicester in their 2001 win over Stade Francais Paris , their five tries beat Brive’s four in the 1997 final and their 28 point winning margin eclipsed Brive’s 19 against Leicester.
Sean O’Brien was named as the Heineken Man of the match and it was the fifth time in seven years an Irish team had won the title.
The opening exchanges were dominated by a pumped up Leinster side that managed to keep the ball for 82% of the first eight minutes. They forced the champions onto the back foot and tested their defence at every occasion.
There were half-breaks, big collisions, but only three points from the ever reliable boot of Ruan Piennar. The Springbok scrum half opened the scoring with his penalty, but Ulster had to wait until the final kick of the first half to score again,
Once they got to the pace of the game, and began to win some possession, they began to weave their magic and two tries flowed to give them a 14-6 interval lead. The first try came after Steffan Terblanche had made a crucial error in kicking directly the touch out of his 22.
Leinster didn’t control the line-out, but won the ball back and created a chance for reigning ERC European Player of the Year Sean O’Brien to barge his way over for the opening try. Johnny Sexton added the extras and also converted the second try by prop Cian Healy.
This time O’Brien turned supplier as he took a clever inside pass from Brian O’Driscoll before tearing up the middle. He was eventually stopped five metres sort, but the ball was recycled and Healy was the first receiver and barged his way over.
Those two tries gave Leinster the upper hand on the scoreboard and the first score after the break was always going to be vital. It came in unusual circumstances as Ulster once again gave away huge territory with a silly error from their young outside half Paddy Jackson.
Convinced Stephen Ferris hadn’t taken the ball back into his 22 he hammered the ball into touch only to find he had given Leinster a line-out some 20 metres out from the Ulster line. Leinster threw to the tail, Kevin McLaughlin rose high and the drive became unstoppable.
That was until Andrew Trimble dived into the middle of the driving maul and brought it to ground two metres short. Welsh referee Nigel Owens saw it clearly and ran straight to the posts to indicate a penalty try.
Sexton added a third conversion and suddenly there was real daylight between the sides at 21-6. Pienaar landed a third penalty three minutes later, but Sexton replied and the only time the gap closed significantly was when Dan Tuohy crossed in the right corner for Ulster’s only try on the hour.
Pienaar couldn’t convert, but at 24-14 there was half a chance for Ulster. But instead of crumbling under the pressure, Leinster rose to the threat and finished with a flourish as they scored tries through front row replacements Heinke van der Merwe and Sean Cronin.
Sexton added two more penalties to end with a match tally of 15 points and Fergus McFadden knocked over the final conversion of Cronin’s try to bring the curtain down on a record breaking performance by the champions.