LONDON CALLED AND Ireland has answered.
But unlike so many Twickenham epics of the past, only two proud provinces are on the other end of the line this afternoon.
The last time European rugby’s premier club competition took over the English capital, there was only one Irish province with claims to a place at the top table. The 2007 finale was the interlude between Munster’s two unforgettable Heineken Cup wins, but now they must sit at home and watch as the Ulster side which outmuscled them on their own patch in the quarter-finals comes face-to-face with a Leinster seeking to legitimize their claim as Europe’s best ever.
Today has been dubbed “the day of destiny” and, as an air of giddy expectation swirls among both sets of fans on this crisp London Saturday, it seems it will be just that.
A first all-Ireland final naturally brings a special set of bragging rights with it, but there is so much more at stake. Leinster’s swashbuckling stars, the doyens of the modern game with their free-flowing and thrilling style, stand just 80 minutes away from history.
In winning, they would become the first club since the Leicester Tigers and Neil Back’s hand successfully defended their title in 2002. Three crowns in four seasons would be a first in the competition and, though it would still leave them one behind Guy Noves and Toulouse in the overall pecking order, it would frank an era of dominance the likes of which has never before been seen.
It’s a new benchmark which the champions’ performances in Europe this season deserve — the pre-Christmas evisceration of Bath in Dublin; the ruthlessness with which they routed Cardiff in the quarter-finals; and the single-minded stubbornness which dragged them back into an away semi against Clermont and then allowed them to prevail in that thrilling goal-line stand at the death.
But even in a contest which seems so heavily loaded in their favour, Leinster supporters know better than to expect any sort of comfort this afternoon, or even to expect a win. If there is any sort of detectable confidence, it is laced with nervy provisos and the unspeakable realisation that their unbeaten streak in the competition — which now dates back to December 2010 — will some day come to an end.
Ulster deserve that much respect at least. They are worthy finalists on their first return to the big time since that ’99 win against Colomiers in Lansdowne Road and all this week, there was no sense from their camp or fans that they are here to be mere bystanders to history.
If Leinster dance to an operatic symphony, Ulster are model practitioners of a dirt-under-the-fingernails hard rock. They strode into the competition’s pool of death, twice stood toe-to-toe with Clermont and made a mockery of Leicester in Ravenhill.
They boast one of the finest, most powerful packs in Europe on current form — a front five which oozes class, one of the game’s leading blindsides in Stephen Ferris and a rapidly rising Chris Henry at openside while veteran Bokke brawler Pedrie Wannenburg holds it together at the back.
In Ruan Pienaar, they have a scrum-half capable of causing chaos among the highest-quality opposition, thriving on the relentless slog of his forwards and putting on a masterclass in kicking every time he laces up his boots.is
Today, these men have the chance to join those of ’99 in Ulster’s pantheon of heroes. It would be a fitting denouement to the restorative reign of head coach Brian McLaughlin which comes to an end this afternoon, win or lose. Under McLaughlin, the pride and passion has returned, matched by performances on the pitch.
There can only be one winner though, on a day when heroes are born, when reputations rise and fall.
When history is made.
Let the cards fall where they will in a final which hopefully lives up to its billing as sporting theatre at its purest, unscripted, mouthwatering best.