Leinster and Northampton Saints clash in the Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday with the chance to join Europe’s elite double tournament winners.
The showpiece match between the former champions, the Saints won European club rugby’s most coveted title in 2000 and Leinster in 2009, will end with one of them joining a select band of just five famous clubs – Toulouse, Leicester Tigers, Munster and London Wasps are already multiple champions – to lift the Heineken Cup more than once.
Leinster still have a European and domestic double in their sights with major finals on successive Saturdays, but the Saints can concentrate all their focus on trying to be the first to go through a Heineken Cup campaign unbeaten and make it nine from nine while proving themselves the kings of Europe.
They went down 11-3 at Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Premiership semi-finals a day after Leinster booked their place in the Magners League Grand Final with an 18-3 home win against Ulster Rugby.
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt described that as “a demolition derby, but it was a really good, competitive match and superb preparation for the Heineken Cup final clash with Northampton Saints at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
“Next weekend is a massive game for us and it is going to be a very, very tough end to the season.
“If we can get to the Heineken Cup final in pretty good shape, and get through that game, it will be glue, sticky tape and band aid to put a team together for the last game.”
Northampton have waited 11 years to have another shot at the northern hemisphere’s main club rugby prize with Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder adamant that despite the Premiership last four defeat the Saints are set on Heineken Cup final glory – “even more so after this,’ he said.
The Saints, the champions in 2000, are the first team in the 16 seasons of the tournament to reach European club rugby’s showpiece match unbeaten with eight from eight.
But England full-back Ben Foden remains wary of the dangers posed by Leinster’s midfield aces Jonny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll in particular.
“This final is an absolutely massive game for the Saints – in fact it is as big as you get playing for your club,” said Foden.
“We all know the Heineken Cup is like football’s Champions League and to be crowned the Kings of Europe is such a huge honour.
“We like to play a wide game and all the signs are that it is going to be a brilliant spectacle not only for the fans of the two sides but also for the neutrals at the game.
“However, Leinster are one of the truly greats in European club rugby, they are flying high and they are playing some great rugby – we saw their semi-final against Toulouse and that was one hell of a game.
“We will have to be right at top of our game if we want to win the Heineken Cup but, on the neutral ground of the Millennium Stadium, we have to fancy our chances.
“Leinster have quality players across the entire side, and have great strength in depth, but I guess their area around 10, 12 and 13 is certainly one of their greatest dangers.
“They also have a big and physical pack but the way our boys have been running lately we hope that we can find some holes out wide.
“You are unlikely to get many chances like this in your career – any number of players will never be lucky enough to be in this position – so you have to make the most of the chance when it comes and, although players like O’Driscoll and D’Arcy have done it all before, we are a young and inexperienced side in terms of a major competition of this size and importance.
“However, things have been bubbling over for the last few seasons for the Saints and the impact players like Tom Wood, Phil Dowson and Lee Dickson are now making proves the club has been making good signings and heading in the right direction.
“We knew after the Pools stage that we had put ourselves in a brilliant position for a home quarter-final, and then possibly the same in semi-finals, but now all the focus is on the final against Leinster and the chance for silverware.
“I have played at the Millennium Stadium quite a few times – including Shane Williams’ testimonial match and of course for England against Wales a couple of months ago – and I really enjoy playing at the ground, there is always such a great buzz.
“I already have fond memories of matches at the Millennium and I hope I have even fonder ones of the stadium after the final.
“We all know how huge this match is for everyone involved with the Saints and that includes our fans. They are a pretty dedicated bunch and follow us most places so I am sure there will be waves of green, black and gold heading for Cardiff and they can be our 16th man and really get behind us.”