Twickenham poised for all-Irish final
Saturday's Heineken Cup final at Twickenham will be a celebration of Irish rugby, the first denouement between two sides from the country in 17 years of the tournament.
Leinster, aiming for a third title in four years to join Toulouse as the only other team to have won it more than twice, start favourites against Ulster, who triumphed back in 1999.
BBC Sport has taken the opinions of two former Ireland captains - Phillip Matthews (38 caps from 1984 to 1991 and an ex-Ulster flanker) and Keith Wood (58 caps from 1994 to 2003 and a Heineken Cup finalist with Munster in 2000) - for some insight into Saturday's proceedings.
Two former winners from the two provinces - Ulster's 1999-winning full-back Bryn Cunningham and Leinster lock Malcolm O'Kelly, who played in their 2009 triumph, also weigh in with their thoughts.
So, an all-Irish final... how did that happen?
Well, it's no surprise Leinster are here again. They are a team of all talents, they finished top of the Pro 12 league by 10 points, and they play some of the finest attacking rugby to be found anywhere in the world.
They can also slug it out with the best of them, as they showed in winning a pulsating semi-final over French giants Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux.
Ulster, it's fair to say, were not being tipped by many at the outset, despite reaching the last eight a year ago for the first time since 1999.
They came through a very tough group which included Leicester and Clermont, stunned two-time champions Munster in their Limerick fortress in the quarter-finals, and held off Edinburgh in a tight semi-final in Dublin to make it through.
How come the Irish sides have become so dominant in Europe?
Certainly a fifth Irish winner in the last seven years - whoever prevails on Saturday - suggests they are doing something right.
A variety of reasons have been put forward, ranging from player management, lack of relegation in the Pro 12 allowing teams to develop a more expansive style, the influence of some innovative Antipodean coaches, to the essential 'spirit' of the provinces.
Irish players certainly play fewer matches in a season than their English counterparts slugging it out in the Premiership, allowing them to rest at certain times and peak for the Heineken Cup.
"In England, clubs are king. In Ireland, country is king, and the country has control of the Heineken Cup teams, because they contract the players, so it is a very different structure," observes Matthews, who nevertheless gives short shrift to the notion that English and French clubs, who provided nine out of the first 10 European champions, are now at a disadvantage.
"I don't buy this theory about the over-intensity of the English season and relegation stopping teams from playing a certain way. I think it comes down to attitude and the tradition of each country.
"England have had quite size-orientated, forward-based teams, since the days of Will Carling's side, and they feel they have to play to their strengths. To a large extent, successful teams in the Premiership, like Leicester, still play that way.
"But if someone matches you physically, what do you do then? If you haven't had to find that something extra in the Premiership, you can't suddenly find it in Europe. To be successful in Europe now, you have to play more of a 15-man game, as Leinster have."
Leinster beat Northampton Saints in last year's Heineken Cup final. Photo: Getty
A few blue-chip imports can't do any harm either?
As well as a fine group of locally-produced players led by the thunderous Stephen Ferris, Ulster have benefited hugely from the influence of an All Blacks prop (John Afoa) and a quartet of Springboks: full-back Stefan Terblanche, lock Johann Muller, number eight Pedrie Wannenburg and scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, the latter kicking 14 points in the quarter-final and 17 in the semi.
"Pienaar is just the calmest man in the world," says Wood. "He is slotting kicks from 55m and banging them 20 yards over the bar. He just doesn't seem to feel the pressure."
Cunningham adds: "He is probably the most humble guy you will ever come across, for one of the best players in the world. He has no airs or graces, despite what he has achieved, and gives time to all the young players coming through. On and off the pitch he has been outstanding for Ulster."
Leinster have also recruited wisely. Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom was the star of their first Heineken triumph in 2009 before returning to Australia. This year, needing an experienced lock as cover while captain Leo Cullen recovered from surgery, they turned to All Black Brad Thorn, who at 37 will become the oldest player to feature in a Heineken Cup final.
"They wanted to make certain they got a leader, and a heavy ball-carrier with a big work-rate, and that is what they got," says Wood. "New Zealanders in particular can have such an influence on the younger guys." Adds O'Kelly: "Watching him lately, I think he is getting better as he gets older."
Why are so many pundits purring about Leinster?
Former England centre Will Greenwood described the first 45 minutes of their quarter-final win over Cardiff Blues, in which they racked up four tries and a 34-3 lead, as "absolute brilliance". Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin calls them a "smashing rugby side".
"Because it is a less structured system where individuals use their own inventiveness, it is difficult to play against and you can't over-analyse it, because they are likely to pull something else off that you haven't planned for," says Matthews.
"They have reached a sort of rugby nirvana, which perhaps only New Zealand, and lately Wales, have reached, where it looks like it has all been thrown together and everyone is doing their own thing. But it's all done within a particular system."
Ruan Pienaar kicked five penalties and a conversion in the 22-19 semi-final win over Edinburgh. Photo: Getty
Doesn't sound like Ulster have much of a chance then?
Not necessarily, if you listen to coach McLaughlin, for whom Saturday could be a bitter-sweet final game in charge, having been told mid-season that he is being replaced by unheralded New Zealander, Mark Anscombe, next season.
"We are not going to Twickenham to make up the numbers. We are going to make sure we perform and show we are a quality side as well," he says.
Recent meetings between the two sides don't bode well for Ulster though. Their last win came in October 2009, while Leinster have won the last five, including home and away for the last two seasons.
"Psychologically, that is probably the biggest battle for Ulster," says Cunningham. "If they are going to win, it is not just on the pitch but in their minds before the game."
But once they get on to the Twickenham turf, will their renowned defence be able to cope with Leinster's all-singing, all-dancing attack?
"I don't think they can shut them out completely," says Matthews. "They can't afford to think they can squeeze the life out of them and score penalties to win it. They will have to score tries as well. They can put Leinster under pressure and make them doubt themselves.
"But I think Leinster have too many leaders - Brian O'Driscoll, Brad Thorn, Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonny Sexton - who can pick it up when they need to. I can't see Ulster suppressing that."
O'Driscoll? We haven't even mentioned him yet. Didn't he have an operation last week?
A little trim of the knee cartilage apparently, although most mortals wouldn't contemplate playing in a major final eight days later.
"As soon as he came out of the hospital he said, 'I am playing'," says Wood. "I played with him and the great thing about him, even as young man, was that if he declared himself fit, he was fit enough. If he wasn't fit, he was man enough not to play."
So more glory for BoD and Leinster beckons then?
"I would fully expect Leinster to win," says O'Kelly. "They are overwhelming favourites but that brings a certain weight on the shoulders."
Wood concurs. "It should be Leinster's title again. But if Ulster turn up and Leinster are not quite up to the mark, it could be very tight."
And BoD's thoughts? "You realise that when you get to a final, all bets are off. Anything can happen."