LEINSTER vs NORTHAMPTON
TOMORROW - 5PM, SKY SPORTS
FEW, other than perhaps the most partisan Frenchman, would argue that the two most deserving sides will meet in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup Final. That story is told by the judges’ selections for the European Player of the Year: Leinster’s Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Isa Nacewa and Northampton Saints’ Soane Tonga’uiha make up four of the five-strong shortlist.
Saints are looking to make it a flawless nine wins from nine matches in this year’s tournament, but there is more to suggest that Leinster will prevail at the Millennium Stadium.
Leo Cullen’s team have done things the hard way, beating English Champions Leicester Tigers in the quarter-finals and current Heineken Cup holders Toulouse in the semis. A 24-8 pool stage victory over French title holders Clermont Auvergne - in which the province produced perhaps the finest performance by any team in this year’s competition - completes a trio of triumphs against Europe’s best club sides. The Irish side are as short as 3/10 for victory - I cannot disagree and suggest backing Leinster to win with a five point handicap at evens with Victor Chandler.
Under Jim Mallinder’s tutelage, Northampton have gone from strength to strength since 2007 but, although they won the trophy in 2000, a European final is very much unchartered territory for most of the current crop of players. As a team, their opponents have a distinct experience advantage having won the tournament two years ago, while a significant number of key personnel - the inspirational Brian O’Driscoll included, who will surely play despite a minor knee injury - have also enjoyed success with country as well as club.
For all their ability to play open rugby, Leinster’s most impressive victories this year have been built around supremacy in the pack and a disciplined lineout. England flanker Tom Wood’s absence is, therefore, a massive blow for the underdogs and will pile even more pressure on Saints second-row Courtney Lawes, who will have his hands full trying to keep tabs on powerhouses O’Brien and Heaslip.
The Premiership side face another disadvantage in the scheduling of recent matches and Mallinder would certainly have wished for more time to recover from a brutal 11-3 defeat to Leicester just seven days ago. Leinster will look to capitalise on any sluggishness and stamp their authority early on. Leinster to lead at the break and at fulltime is a good bet at 4/5 with William Hill.
The past six Heineken Cup Finals have averaged 34 points with a highest combined score of 42 in that sample and selling points with Sporting Index at 39 appears the right course of action this time. The wind is expected to get up which could prove a hindrance to goal kickers Johnny Sexton and Steve Myler and the quality of both teams in midfield leads me to expect a tightly fought, low scoring outcome.