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The Leinster pair bidding to become most decorated in European history

By Kim Ekin
Jonathan Sexton of Leinster shakes hands with teammate Scott Penny after their side's victory in the United Rugby Championship match between Leinster and Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Leinster are seeking their add a fifth Heineken Champions Cup star and to join Stade Toulousain as the most successful club in the tournament’s history this weekend in Marseille. Remarkably the men in blue boast a pair of veterans that are also bidding for their fifth Champions Cup title as players.

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In the extremely likely event that they are selected in the matchday 23, and if Leinster ulitimately lift the trophy, Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy will become the most decorated players in the tournament’s history by each claiming a fifth winner’s medal.

To date, six players have won on four occasions: Cédric Heymans (CA Brive/Stade Toulousain), Fréderic Michalak (Stade Toulousain/RC Toulon) and the Leinster quartet of Sexton, Healy, Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner.

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Sexton and Healy will break new ground, having been present at Leinster’s first trophy lift back in 2009, when the province bested Leicester Tigers in Murrayfield.

As many as 17 of Leinster’s tournament squad are already Heineken Champions Cup winners having been selected in the matchday squad for a final: Jack Conan, Seán Cronin, Tadgh Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park, Cian Healy, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Luke McGrath, Rory O’Loughlin, Andrew Porter, Garry Ringrose, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner and James Tracy, according to stats released by the EPCR.

Henshaw, if selected, will make his 50th tournament appearance in the final.

Sexton has scored the most points of any player in Heineken Champions Cup finals with 68 from five appearances. His total of 28 in Leinster’s dramatic win against Northampton Saints in 2011 has only been surpassed by Diego Dominguez’s metronomic 30 points in Stade Francais Paris’ losing final against Leicester Tigers in 2001.

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Standing in his way is his old foe and friend, Ronan O’Gara. The pair locked horns for years on either side of the Leinster-Munster divide and wrestled for the Ireland number ten jersey. It was a fight that Sexton, nine years O’Gara’s junior, would inevitably win.

O’Gara famously had Heineken Cup success with Munster Rugby in 2006 and 2008 and he now could become the second person to win the title as both player and head coach, emulating his opposite number on Saturday, Leo Cullen, who is the only person to have the achieved the feat so far.

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As the Corkman’s club attempts to win its first EPCR title, four members of the Stade Rochelais tournament squad have already tasted European success. Will Skelton was a Heineken Champions Cup winner with Saracens in 2018, while Jonathan Danty, Jules Plisson and Jérémy Sinzelle were Challenge Cup winners with Stade Francais Paris in 2017.

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Stade Rochelais are bidding to become the 13th club to be crowned champions of Europe since the tournament’s inception in 1995. If they triumph on Saturday evening, they will be the fourth French club after Stade Toulousain, CA Brive and RC Toulon, to lift the trophy.

While Leinster might be favourites for the title, it is they who owe La Rochelle one, having lost 32 – 23 in last year’s semi-final. The French side were too big and too powerful that day and Leinster used the defeat to motivate a tweak in their approach this season.

The impressive Grégory Alldritt of Stade Rochelais, who has been shortlisted for the European Player of the Year award, leads this season’s statistics in three categories: carries (113), metres (731) and offloads (15).

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Victor Vito, who hangs up his boots at the end of the season, had Super Rugby success with the Hurricanes in 2016 and could become the 12th player to do the Heineken Champions Cup and Super Rugby double if Stade Rochelais win.

Players from eight different countries – Argentina, Australia, Fiji, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Samoa and South Africa – are likely to feature in the final.

Stats – EPCR

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