This Saturday, Twickenham will become centre stage for the biggest match in the European rugby season as the home of English rugby prepares for an all-Irish affair in the 2012 Heineken Cup final.
Both Ulster and Leinster have battled through the cream of the continent to reach the season’s showpiece event, and now stand just a win away from achieving the ultimate crown in club rugby within the Northern Hemisphere.
Leinster go into the match as favourites as they bid to become the first team since Leicester a decade ago to succesfully defend the trophy, and are also seeking their third Heineken triumph in just four years.
However, Ulster have continually defied the odds in this year’s tournament, having overcome an incredibly tough pool and then conquering at one of the toughest venues in the game to gain the opportunity of securing the province’s second European crown.
This year will also mark the first time that the final has been an all-Irish affair, and both will be fiercely determined to ensure that they leave rugby HQ with the spoils.
In the past few years, Leinster have earned a rightful reputation for being the most free-flowing and clinical team in Europe, developing a strength of character that makes them a force anywhere they play and performing with a ferocious intensity that very few teams can cope with.
Joe Schmidt’s side cruised through a pool consisting of Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier before dismantling Cardiff Blues at the Aviva stadium in the quarter-finals.
But like all great teams, Leinster produce their best the more the tournament progresses, and they showed this by defeating Clermont Auvergne in France to reach the final.
They have a formidable pack in the likes of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross, while their lineout options include captain Leo Cullen and World Cup winner Brad Thorn.
Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip look set to form a back-row full of dynamism and power in what is sure to be a fierce battle at the breakdown.
The experience of Eoin Reddan will compliment the growing maturity of Jonathan Sexton, who has once again proven that he is one of the top fly-halves in the Northern Hemisphere.
One of the big moments going into the knockout stages was the return of talisman Brian O’Driscoll, who will form the usual midfield partnership with Gordon D’Arcy.
However, Leinster will be missing a major threat on the wing in Luke Fitzgerald after undergoing neck surgery, with Fergus McFadden looking set to fill in as his replacement and form a prominent back three of Isa Nacewa and the brilliant Rob Kearney.
While Leinster look to be irresistable on paper, they come up against an Ulster outfit that have thrived on overcoming huge challenges already in this year’s competition.
Brian McLaughlin’s team have progressed from a pool containing Clermont and English heavyweights Leicester before stunning Munster at Thomond Park to become only the second side to win there in Heineken Cup history.
A tense victory over Edinburgh in the semis booked the province’s first appearance in the final since they defeated Colomiers in 1999, and this is a team more than capable of repeating those heroics.
The departing McLaughlin has instilled a strong will to succeed in this squad, and they have developed a superb defence and clinical nature to mature into one of the continent’s elite.
Tom Court, Rory Best and Declan Fitzpatrick look set to get the nod in the pack, while Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy will provide a stern test up against Cullen and Thorn in the lineout.
That crucial battle in the back-row will be completed by the outstanding Stephen Ferris, Willie Faloon and Pedrie Wannenburg as the tug-of-war for possession could prove crucial.
Ruan Pienaar has arguably been the standout player in the Heineken Cup this season. His imperious and nerveless form with the boot has provided the platform for Ulster to get to this stage.
It will be interesting to see whether Paddy Jackson or Ian Humphreys get the nod at number 10. Humphreys has been the regular fly-half, but Jackson’s form in recent weeks have propelled the 20 year-old into contention.
Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace will aim to create the forward momentum in the centre, and the back three of Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Stefan Terblanche can create the moment of magic that might just prove the difference.
So two titanic teams prepare for one of the most epic battles in Irish rugby history, but only one will travel back across the Irish sea as champions of Europe. It promises to live up to the hype.
Prediction: It will be nip and tuck between two sides that fully deserve a shot at the title, but with so little separating the sides, Leinster’s experience of previous finals may prove decisive. Leinster to win by 3 points.
So what do you think? Which side will prevail in the all-Irish Heineken Cup final? Leave a comment and let us know your views.