Munster has given Irish rugby supporters some magic moments to remember in recent years as they often came from behind to snatch dramatic wins in the Heineken Cup. But at a time when it looks like Father Time is catching up with the majority of the Munster team, it's now up to Leinster to carry the hopes of Irish rugby fans as they head to Cardiff on Saturday evening bidding to win the Heineken Cup for the second time in three years.
Standing in their way at the Millennium Stadium are England's Northampton, who like Leinster won the Heineken Cup once previously, when they beat Munster in the 2000 final at Twickenham. Northampton will be attempting to become the first team to go through the competition unbeaten since the 20-team format was adopted in 1997. Both clubs got to the final by defeating French clubs at the semifinal stage, Northampton had a convincing 23-7 win over Perpignan, while Leinster had a hard fought 32-23 win over Toulouse. After the latter game at the Aviva Stadium Toulouse backs coach Jean-Baptise Elissalde said: ''I don't think there is another team in Europe playing at the level of Leinster.'' Let's hope we can still say that by 7 p.m. on Saturday evening when we could see Brian O'Driscoll lift the Heineken Cup for the second time. And there is an added incentive for Leinster to win on Saturday because, if they do then Connacht will play in the Heineken Cup for the first time next season.
CORK HAVE EASY OPENING DEFENSE
After a slow start the All-Ireland football championship clicks into top gear next weekend with action in all four provinces including the first appearance of the reigning champions Cork. The Rebels, fresh from their National Football League win over Dublin, shouldn't have any difficulty beating Clare at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Cork has a very settled team whereas Kerry manager Jack O'Connor will have to do a bit of rejigging this year. O'Connor's big problem is finding a proper midfield partnership, but the good news for Kingdom supporters is that Eoin Brosnan and Paul Galvin are both back. Galvin, who missed most of last summer's championship through suspension, is unlikely to figure on Sunday as he is struggling with a hamstring injury. A few years back when Declan Browne was playing for Tipperary they were a match for Kerry and even though current Tipp moss John Evans will know all about his native Kerry it's unlikely to be enough to trouble The Kingdom in Fitzgerald Stadium.
The action should be much tighter in the Leinster double header at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise. This will be Mick O'Dwyer's last year in charge of Wicklow, but it looks like Micko will have to make do with the back door route once again, as Kildare the county who resurrected his intercounty career, should be too strong for his Wicklow side. Laois is another county that did well under O'Dwyer and they are now going well again under former Armagh player Justin McNulty. On Sunday Laois should get the better of recently crowned division four champions Longford.
Derry will be without the injured Paddy Bradley, but they should still beat Fermanagh at Celtic Park. Fermanagh manager John O'Neill, who survived a player revolt in March, is likely to introduce seven or eight new players to championship action on Sunday. And home advantage should also be enough for Sligo to overcome Leitrim at Markievicz Park.
PORTUGUESE SIDESGO HEAD TO HEAD
A decade ago if I had written that we would see England's Queen Elizabeth and the U.S. president visit Dublin in the same week that a major European soccer final would be played at Lansdowne Road there would have been letters to the editor asking him to check out my sanity. The Queen arrived yesterday but she won't be taking in the Europa League Final at the Aviva Stadium between the Portuguese clubs FC Porto and Braga tonight. She is definitely more interested in horses than soccer, but I don't think she would have had any difficulty picking up tickets for her entourage if they wanted to see the final as there have been plenty available in Dublin over the past few weeks. Braga didn't take up their full allocation.
Obama is not a soccer fan either, but he won't be in until the weekend. Tonight's game will be the biggest soccer game ever staged in Ireland, but the final would certainly be more attractive for home supporters if any English club like Liverpool or Manchester City had made it to the final. Portugal like Ireland, is struggling financially after a recent bailout and it will be interesting to see how many supporters travel for the game. Still, it should be a great occasion and like the president's and queen's visit, yet another high profile event that should help improve the image of Ireland abroad.
TRAP SEES DERBY AS GOOD WARM-UP
Giovanni Trapattoni will become only the fourth Republic of Ireland manager to experience an All-Ireland derby when he takes charge of the Republic against Northern Ireland in the Carling Nations Cup at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday next. This will be the tenth meeting of the two Irelands and the first since May 1999 when The North won a Peace International 1-0 at the old Lansdowne Road. There is usually not much interest in end of season competitions, but Trapattoni will be looking at this game and the final game in the tournament against Scotland on Sunday week as a useful build-up to the European Championship qualifier against Macedonia on June 4. Northern Ireland's don't have a game in June and their next game is against Brian Kerr's Faroe Islands side in Belfast next August. The Republic should win this competition as they already have three points in the bag following their 3-0 win over Wales in February, while The North were beaten 3-0 by Scotland in their opening game.
Meanwhile the FAI has reacted to poor attendances at recent home games and say they will reduce the price of tickets for internationals next season. A package of six internationals plus the FAI Cup Final will be available for a reasonable €189. For under 16s, the price will be €55. The FAI say that the reductions are made possible by confirmation of UEFA's centralized television rights agreement that will benefit all European Associations from 2014.
IRISH TO TAKE ON ITALY
Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland's friendly against Italy on June 7, which initially had been planned for the U.S., will now be played in Liege, Belgium. The game will be staged at Stade Maurice Dufrasne, the home of Standard Liege and will kick off at 7.45pm Irish time. It comes four days after the European Championship qualifier against Macedonia in Skopje on June 4.
HOLDERS SLIGO GET HOME DRAW
FAI Ford Cup holders Sligo Rovers have been paired with Limerick junior club Pike Rovers FC in the third round of this year's competition. Sligo manager Paul Cook said: "We're delighted with the draw. To be drawn at home first is important. Pike Rovers is a new name to me, we'll have to do a bit of research on them." The only all-Premier Division tie saw Dundalk paired Galway United while premier division leaders Shamrock Rovers got a home draw against first division Athlone Town. The third round games will be played on the week-ending June 5.
KEANE HAD REAL OFFER
In a recent interview with Cork local radio station Roy Keane admitted that he had been offered a chance to join Real Madrid towards the end of time with Manchester United. Keane said: ''I had a chance to go to Real Madrid at 34 years of age. But the body wasn't in great shape at that time and wanted to join Celtic and play against Rangers. I enjoyed my time at Celtic, I didn't play particularly well there and didn't get the game time I was after but I enjoyed the craic in the dressing-room.''