Leinster and the Northampton Saints do battle in Cardiff on Saturday for the right to call themselves champions of Europe, in a competition that grows in strength, quality and size every year. Irish referee Alain Rolland, who played in the inaugural tournament in 1995 explains that the competition was cobbled together and ‘came out of nowhere’ yet in just 16 years has transformed into ‘a monster of a tournament’ that most would argue is the pre-eminent club rugby competition in the world, perhaps even the best of any sport.
I can already hear the howls of derision coming from fans of the round ball game. Personally I think the Champions League is currently the greatest club competition of any sport. The Heineken Cup, however, might just come to challenge its dominance eventually. This year its average attendances have been double those at its inception, with the crowds in the knockout stages averaging 38,000 and with rugby on the up all over the continent, who knows it may not be too long before we see Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian and Georgian sides all at the European top table?
The elite European competitions for both sports can continue to learn from each other though; the Heineken Cup retains a far higher level of unpredictability, which the Champions League may wish to take note of as its rigid seeding system has made the group stages all too pedestrian in recent years. Leinster, for example, had to scrape through a group of death to make the knockout stages and fully deserved it. Yet the Heineken Cup must also learn the fairness of the Champions League, so instead of delivering, what is in effect, a ‘Home’ Semi-final to one team just from the luck of the draw, they should seek to move it to a neutral ground.
The Heineken Cup can certainly match any competition for its stunning variety and colour; with backdrops ranging from wet and wild Limerick to sunny San Sebastian in the Basque country and from grey Milton Keynes to the vibrant furnace of Perpignan. With every side comes a different culture, set of fans and style of rugby and every year the tournament is littered with sub-plots, rivalries and twists as well as producing world-class rugby. No wonder it has such a pull for players in the Southern Hemisphere who all universally cite it as a major reason for upping sticks and moving north (as well as the money no doubt!).
The Super 15 definitely produces fantastic rugby but can’t decide what it’s supposed to be; a domestic or an international competition, and as a result seems a bit sterile when compared to the spectacle of the Heineken. Expect to see even more of the Super 15’s very best in Europe after the World Cup this year.
So which way will the final go? The bookies have the ’09 champions Leinster as favourites. Hard to disagree with as they have barrel loads of style and substance and are probably the most complete side in Europe right now. Long gone are the days when Leinster were considered a bit of a soft touch up front. Although they will have their work cut out in the scrum against a Northampton front row that has been demolishing sides all year.
Talismanic skipper Brian O’Driscoll is a serious injury doubt for the Irish side though but he does have a miraculous knack of pulling through a last minute fitness test. Even if ‘BOD’ is missing in the centre I feel Northampton will lack the direction at half back and creativity in midfield to really capitalise and hurt Leinster, they have great talent out wide no doubt, it is just a matter of getting the ball to the likes of Foden and Ashton.
A final mention for Isa Nacewa, Leinster’s full-back, and my tip for European player of the year. Some magic from the in-form Fijian may be the telling difference in class between two great teams. I feel the victory will go to Leinster by 7-10 points and here’s hoping for a great occasion for Rugby at the Millennium Stadium.