Preview: European Cup Final
Thu, 17 May 2012 00:00
It may be two Irish provinces fighting at the home of English rugby for European supremacy, but the spotlight will be on All Black Brad Thorn.
If his team, Leinster, beats Ulster in Saturday's all-Irish European Cup Final at Twickenham the veteran second row forward, Thorn, will record a historic treble.
Thorn could become the first player in the history of the game to have won a World Cup, European Cup and Super Rugby titles.
The 37-year-old, who is on a three-month contract with the reigning European Cup champions, was part of the New Zealand squad which triumphed at the World Cup last year and he also won the Super 14 with the Crusaders in 2008.
In addition, Thorn will become the oldest player to appear in a European Cup Final at 37 years, three months and 16 days.
To date, Perpignan's Marc Dal Maso, who came on as a replacement in the 2003 final, is the oldest player at 36 years, three months and 10 days, while the oldest tournament winner is Darren Garforth who was 36 years, one month and 19 days when he was a winner with Leicester Tigers in 2002.
"I just love my footie. I like being here, the challenge of it and being part of a European Cup," said Thorn.
"Leinster are a great side with a great coaching team in Joe Schmidt, Greg Feek and Jono Gibbes - the whole package. Being in the European Cup final is juicy, but basically there's a brick wall between us and the cup in Ulster."
Meanwhile, if Pedrie Wannenburg is selected and if Ulster secure their second title after a 13-year wait, then the South African back row will become the third player to have won both European Cup and Super Rugby titles.
Wannenburg won three Super 14 titles with the Bulls - in 2007, 2009 and 2010 - and could match the achievement of Rod Kafer (Brumbies 2001 and Leicester Tigers 2002) and Doug Howlett (Blues 2003 and Munster 2008) in what will be his last match for Ulster.
The northern hemisphere's blue riband tournament comes to a climax at the home of English rugby with the guarantee that the silverware will go on display in an Irish trophy cabinet for the fifth time in seven seasons and with Leinster bidding to be crowned European champions for an unprecedented third time in four seasons.
By contrast 1999 champions Ulster, the first Irish club to win the tournament, have ended a 13-year wait and are through to only their second final appearance.
It is the first all-Irish final in the history of the tournament with both clubs taking major scalps on the road in the knock-out stages to qualify for the prestigious showpiece match.
Ulster beat former double champions Munster 22-16 at Thomond Park in the quarterfinals and then found that another 22 point haul was good enough to account for Edinburgh Rugby 22-19 in the Dublin semifinal.
Leinster romped to a 34-3 quarterfinal win over Cardiff Blues but then had to dig deep to hold out for a 19-15 victory over French giants ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Bordeaux semi-final.
It all adds up to Leinster reaching the final unbeaten with seven wins and a draw and in with the chance of being the first club to go through a Heineken Cup campaign without suffering a loss.
Ulster have arrived in the final after qualifying for the knock-out stages as a Pool runner-up and have All Blacks prop John Afoa available again following his four-week suspension.
But while the critical forward aerial battle will see fellow All Black and 2011 World Cup winner Brad Thorn and Leinster captain Leo Cullen up against former Springbok captain Johann Muller and the promising Dan Tuohy, the goal kicking duel between Jonny Sexton - the 2011 Heineken Cup Final Man of the Match - and Springbok Ruan Pienaar could be the difference.
Heineken Man of the Match Pienaar kicked a perfect six from six against Edinburgh while Sexton has contributed 88 points to Leinster's bid to match Leicester Tigers' 2001 and 2002 feat in successfully defending their title.
Leinster have the target of a European and domestic double in their sights with finals on successive weekends while Ulster go into their one chance for glory having been free to focus exclusively on Saturday's showdown.
Ulster's South African trio is made up of inspirational captain Muller, Pienaar and back row forward Pedrie Wannenburg with the final Wannenburg's last appearance in an Ulster jersey before taking up a new contract in France and the Springbok is determined to try and leave with the trophy safely under lock and key in the Ravenhill cabinet.
For their part, Joe Schmidt's champions have that triple title as their target in front of a watching world audience in over 100 countries.
Date: Saturday May 19
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 17.00 (16.00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Jérôme Garces (France)
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