SO, this is it then. After years of weeping and gnashing of teeth, not to mention wholesale defections of the disillusioned to the Munster bandwagon, Leinster are at last where they want to be. But as Michael Cheika warned in the heady aftermath of his side's monumental Croke Park victory: "The final is not the prize."
The possibility of inadvertently getting their mindset wrong is Leinster's dilemma. So much emotional energy was invested in the Munster performance, and so much was on the line, that the occasion, the contest and then the result itself all combined to make it feel like something more than a Heineken Cup semi-final.
Quite simply, Leinster will have to deliver again next Saturday. Anything less than the aggression and the organisation that tore the heart out of Munster, and they will almost certainly lose.
For all that, the portents are good. If sheer defiance saved them against Harlequins, they ratcheted up the intensity to produce a perfect defensive storm against Munster. From the exasperating inconsistency of the pool stages, they now appear to have got their act together. If they manage to silence the little voice in their heads telling them they're already over the line, then Cheika's prize is definitely within reach.
Because Leinster are talented enough and bloody-minded enough – they proved that beyond any shadow of a doubt a fortnight ago. The days that undermined the province's credibility as serious European Cup contenders – the fiasco against Perpignan in 2003 and the humiliation by Munster three years later – were to an extent offset by the emphatic way they drummed their old rivals out of the tournament. Without the silverware in their hands, the transition from talkers to walkers is of course incomplete, but there is sufficient evidence that the time is right for lifers such as Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan and Malcolm O'Kelly to at last do themselves justice in a blue jersey.
With their vast reserves of experience, their fearless tyros, Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy, as well as the explosive brilliance of Rocky Elsom, it is hard to see Leinster freezing. The loyal supporters who've so often held their heads in their hands in the past may still harbour doubts about the team, but the players are positively brimming with confidence.
They'll need every drop of self-belief, just as they'll need to sustain the hard-nosed attitude that's carried them this far, because they're up against the club that wrote the hard-nosed manual. Apart from the front row where Marcos Ayerza, George Chuter and either Julian White or Martin Castrogiovanni will pose a much greater threat than anything Leinster have met in the knockout stages so far, Leicester don't have an edge in terms of personnel, but they are in a different league in terms of tradition.
It's not that Leinster are new on the block or anything like that, it's just that in the professional era, they've failed to build a reputation as winners, whereas finals and trophies have become Leicester's stock-in-trade. Yesterday was their fifth Premiership decider in a row.
Leicester are the Munster of the English game. They are chippy, stubborn, resilient. Leinster have gone out to buy players, but Leicester's players have to buy into the club. Without coming over all misty-eyed, the fact that the Heineken Cup was won in 2001 and 2002 will mean something next weekend. This team will be carrying a torch, a responsibility, and blow-ins like Craig Newby and Ben Woods will be just as much aware of that tradition as Sam Vesty whose father and grandfather both played for the club.
Significantly, the last time the Tigers triumphed in Europe, Dean Richards was at the helm, and now the onus has been passed on to another of Leicester's die-hards. If a few years ago someone had said that Richard Cockerill would be calling the shots, he'd have been ridiculed, but the former loud-mouthed loose-cannon has taken the team from the margins of both the Heineken Cup and the English Premiership to two finals.
Although he admits that when he gives Ben Kay a line-out sheet, the second-row hands it back with all the spelling mistakes corrected, Cockerill has won the respect of his squad since the departure of South African, Heyneke Meyer, for family reasons earlier in the season.
Leicester were fortunate to come through the penalty shoot-out against Cardiff, but from the searing class of Geordan Murphy to the muscular promise of Jordan Crane, Cockerill has them performing at exactly the right time. Harry Ellis, their one Lions representative – although Tom Croft is soon likely to make that two – can't even get in the side.
If the scrum is a concern for Leinster, with Jamie Heaslip, O'Kelly, Cullen and Elsom all viable lineout options, they should be well capable of holding their own out of touch provided Bernard Jackman's throwing improves from the semi-final. Equally, the back row trio of Shane Jennings, Elsom and Heaslip has a clear edge even if Lewis Moody is promoted from the subs by Cockerill.
Leinster won't be too dismayed that the powerhouse wing, Alesana Tuilagi, who finishes a four-week suspension just before the final, will be on the bench, and there are also doubts over the fitness of the highly influential Aaron Mauger. If the New Zealander misses out, then O'Driscoll and D'Arcy have the necessary smarts to dominate Danny Hipkiss and Ayoola Erinle in midfield,
"O'Driscoll is one of the best players in the world," says Murphy, "but if you worry about him too much you create space for D'Arcy, Fitzgerald, Horgan or Kearney. You can't say you just have to shut one guy down. If you concentrate on one of them too much, you'll get into trouble."
As long as Leinster are in the zone and as long as their defence is as mean as it was in the semi-final, much will hinge on how Johnny Sexton handles the most pressurised occasion of his career. If the unsung Vesty has managed to bring the best out of the Leicester back division with his clever distribution, no one is too sure what to expect of Sexton who has spent a largely frustrating season in the shadow of Felipe Contepomi and Isa Nacewa.
He was confident and authoritative when he came off the bench at Croke Park, but for some reason, starting is always a different ball game. He needs to keep his head as much as he needs to kick his goals. Next Saturday shouldn't be the defining moment for a 23-year old out-half with his future in front of him, but it will certainly feel like it.
Leinster will be going into the final fresh, Leicester will be battle-hardened after three sapping contests in as many weeks, but the desire on both sides of the divide will be no less. "I don't think Leinster will be happy enough with a silver medal," reckons Murphy. "It's a European Cup, obviously they've never won it and they'd dearly love to win it. If that's not incentive enough, I don't know what is."
If Munster suffered the heartbreak of defeat before they've learned how to win, Leinster's European journey has been nothing like as heroic. Cheika and his players will make noises about building for the future if it all goes pear-shaped at Murrayfield, but in truth, they've run out of time. The apprenticeship is over, they're in the boardroom now.
What we do know is that an Irishman will be lifting the Heineken Cup in Edinburgh next weekend, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be Leo Cullen.
Heineken Cup final
Leinster v Leicester
Saturday, Murrayfield, 5.00
Live, Sky Sports 2, 4.30
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