Heineken Cup Final – Leinster v Northampton
They may have the financial muscle that teams from the rest of Europe can only dream of, but after last year’s all French final it has been a disappointing season for the Top 14. Instead, 2000 Heineken Cup winners Northampton will face 2009 champions Leinster in what should be a terrific tie at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
The end of season showpiece arguably features the best two teams in the tournament and Leinster are the favourites to take the trophy back to Ireland for the third time in four years.
Leinster the favourites to win their second title in three years
2009 winners Leinster are the worthy favourites for this season’s Heineken Cup final, mainly due to the quality of the opposition that they have overcome on the way to Cardiff.
Josef Schmidt’s side have had to negotiate a hazardous route to the last two, having beaten the top three teams in France (Clermont Auvergne, Racing Metro and Toulouse) and the two leading teams in England (Leicester Tigers and Saracens) on the way to the final.
The boot of Jonathan Sexton has been crucial for Leinster this campaign. Sexton is the tournament’s top scorer with 104 points, including a vital 22 points in the club’s 32-23 semi-final win over Toulouse. The club also boasts the inspirational centre Brian O’Driscoll as well as fellow Irish teammates Leo Cullen, Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D’Arcy.
Leinster have a fantastic record in this tournament with two finals and a semi-final appearance in the last three years. They are 10/11 to overcome a five point handicap and win in Cardiff.
Northampton looking for first Heineken Cup win in over a decade
With just a few weeks left of the season, it could end up being one of Northampton’s best ever campaigns. An Aviva Premiership play-off place beckons, and the Saints have the chance to lift their first Heineken Cup since they beat Munster 9-8 at Twickenham in 2000.
After a good start in the league, the Saints squeezed rather than breezed their way through the Heineken Cup group stages after narrow wins over Edinburgh, Castres and the Cardiff Blues. A six game losing streak in the Aviva Premiership cost Jim Mallinder’s side the chance of a top two finish, although wins over Ulster and Perpignan have carried them to their first European final since their win over Bourgoin in the Challenge Cup final in 2009.
Northampton can boast strong centres in Jon Clarke and James Downey whilst the likes of Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Courtney Lawes have also made an impact on the international scene for England this season.
Intriguing final very close to call
Whatever the outcome, spectators at the Millennium Stadium are in for a treat. The Guardian’s Paul Rees rates Leinster and Northampton as ‘the best two sides in the tournament’ and their results in the tournament so far make them deserved finalists.
Leinster are the slight favourites with Northampton available at 10/11 with a five point start. Whilst the Irish side may have the more impressive recent pedigree in the tournament, the Saints have won seven of their last eight matches and bring some good form into the final.
I actually think there could be a slight upset in Cardiff, and I fancy Northampton to lift the trophy. The Saints are 7/1 to win by 6-10 points.