The two finalists of Europe—the great usurpers of Ireland against the born again powerhouse of England, by quirk of fates and rules, their paths here were vastly different.
It was a result that propelled them to a summit, having strode out from the immense shadow of the red army, and now looking to be the third Irish team to hoist what is regarded as the symbol of Northern hemisphere club supremacy.
To call them upstarts is hardly fair—they did win the Magner’s League last season—and they possess a squad that boasts more than 15 men whom have represented their country of origin in either Irish, Wallaby, or Puma colours.
But when you play in the same nation as two-time winners and two-time runners-up Munster, you are not often mentioned in the discussions of rugby greatness.
The Tigers are often in such forums.
In the last twelve months we have seen a remarkable metamorphosis of the 129-year-old English rugby club.
Their history is all but unrivaled. They have been two-time champions of Europe and two-time runners up. To go with that, they have seven English championships since 1988, six Anglo-Welsh cups, and a strong claim to be the most decorated club in the North.
Midseason in this year’s Guinness Premiership, Heyneke Meyer departed with the club sitting in seventh place, and not looking like a threat to England nor the premier tournament of Europe.
Since then Richard Cockerill—a former Tiger himself—has reinvigorated the team. Many have since led comparisons to this now seemingly great team to the side that Dean Richards and Martin Johnson had striding the rugby continent several years, unchallenged.
They defeated London Irish, in a somewhat dour final, to have the team on the cusp of a remarkable domestic and European double.
On the face of this, they deserve their place in the final.
But their path here was controversial to say the least.
Far be it for me to attack the rules that govern our great game, but for a finals position to be decided via a penalty shootout was a travesty.
It certainly could have gone either way.
Cardiff could argue to being the form team of the Northern Hemisphere coming into the match, being on a 12-match cup winning streak. The conquerors of Toulouse and EDF champions were favoured to tip the Tigers.
But a Jordan Crane kick saw that dream fail.
So now we are here, at Murrayfield, where we will either see Leinster lift their first European crown, or see the Tigers join Toulouse as the only team to have won the title three times.
For Leinster, a team with almost as many Irish internationals as Munster, they certainly have the arsenal to take this most elusive of titles.
They have overcome their fourth semi final to reach the final match of the championship, but must do against the odds. They will not have the master Felipe Contepomi to guide their operation around the park.
Equally, so much hinges on Brian O’Driscoll. Can the warhorse last? He will head to South Africa as the only recognised outside centre. This year will become a battle of attrition with his physical well being.
Much will depend on the efforts of Rocky Elsom, the inspirational blind side who almost destroyed the efforts of the Munster back row by himself.
Here, the match will be decided.
The Tigers' reinvention has come at the breakdown. Cockerill regards this as the holy grail of rugby coaching. Ben Kay and Martin Corry have remarked that he spends more time going through the ruck and contact area than any other aspect.
Combined with a rediscovered flair for running rugby, the Tigers appear on the verge of rediscovering the greatness of their golden age, a trait that may again see the trophy cabinet at Welford Road filled again.
Despite the pedigree and history that the Tigers bring to Murrayfield, one feels that Leinster will not let this one go, after creating history against Munster at Croke Park.
A team full of Irish warhorses should bring this home narrowly, in a tight tussle, not a spectacle, by four points.
- Road to final: W W W L W L W D
- HC history: Champions (2000/01, 2001/02) Runners up (1996/97, 2006/07)
- Road to final: W W W L L W W W
- HC history: Semi finalists (1995/96, 2002/03, 2005/06)
Previous Heineken Cup clashes
- HEAD TO HEAD: Played 9, Leicester Tigers 5, Leinster 4
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