It is easy to regard the Amlin Challenge Cup Final as an insignificance, a mere amuse bouche before the meaty entree of the Heineken Cup Final the following afternoon. That would be a mistake, though, as the game still features two of the best sides in Europe, both of whom will be playing for a place in the more prestigious competition next season as well as the trophy itself.
Leinster are the last non-French team left in European competition, and for them this is the first of two finals in 8 days. They’ll put all thoughts of the Pro12 final the following weekend out of their heads, of course, but there is no doubt that their chances of success in that game will be greatly enhanced if they can win this one.
Reaching that final came at a cost, however. Influential flanker Sean O’Brien suffered a recurrence of a calf injury and his skill and expertise in the back row will be needed to counter the threat of Stade Francais’ Sergio Parisse. More significantly, though, centre Brian O’Driscoll, the talisman not just of this team but of Irish rugby as a whole, left the game after 17 minutes with what has variously been reported as a back spasm or a knee injury. To some extent, though, the exact nature of the problem doesn’t matter, the question is whether the Leinster medical staff can patch him up by Friday evening or not. If they can’t, the balance of power in this match might just swing in favour of the French side.
For Stade Francais, this game represents a return to times they last encountered seven or eight years ago, when they were without doubt the biggest team in France. That was before they were caught on the hop by several other French sides, who invested heavily in player personnel (taking advantage of the fact that there is no salary cap in French rugby). It is not coincidence that two of those sides, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon, meet in the Heineken Cup Final on Saturday.
Fortunately for the balance of European rugby, and of the Pro14 competition, Stade have been catching up. This is in no small part due to the influence of Parisse. The Italian captain retains his status as the best Number 8 in world rugby and although discipline issues have cost him dear this season there is no doubting that his much-vaunted ability to haul a team with him on the international stage is a major boost to his club side, too. Throw in the talented Julien Dupuy (who English fans will remember from his time with Leicester Tigers) at scrum half and rising star Jerome Porical at full back and they have the axis of a very good team.
Where you place your money in this game is going to very much depend upon the fitness reports which emerge from Leinster. Whilst the Irishmen are far from being a two player side, going into a European final without two of your best players is tough, especially when one of them, O’Driscoll, has so much experience of the big occasion. As the betting odds stand, Leinster are 1/7 favourites with Coral, whilst Stade Francais are as long as 13/2 at BetVictor. If you are going to bet in the win market then I would be inclined to take the Stade odds now, because they are unlikely to be at a better price than that and will stand a realistic chance of the win if they play a depleted opponent.
Backing Leinster is trickier, because at this stage they are justified favourites, but those odds will drift if the injury fears become realities. On the basis that a full strength Leinster side should win this easily, and that the drifting odds would mean that their chances were lessening anyway, I would back those short odds with my sports picks now, but it is a risky move at this stage no matter which way you go.
Also take a look at our Heineken Cup Finals Picks.