Heineken Cup final looks like a case of the usual suspects
IS the old order changing, or has it just gone to sleep? A glance at the line-ups for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-finals might suggest the former. One side, Edinburgh, has never made it this far and, although their opponents, Ulster, actually won the trophy in 1999 that victory was largely devalued by that season's boycott of the competition by English clubs.
In the other half of the draw, Leinster may be reigning champions, but they only won the Heineken Cup for the first time in 2009, while their opponents, Clermont, have never won it.
Both those teams have spent a long time in the shadow of more illustrious compatriots, Munster and Toulouse respectively.
But Toulouse were mugged by Edinburgh and Munster taken apart by Ulster in two extraordinary quarter-finals, while England's European thoroughbreds, twice-champion Leicester, had failed to get past the group stages.
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Nor had Bath, first English winners of the trophy, Northampton Saints, winners in 2000, nor Wasps, champions in 2004 and 2007.
That Wasps success five years ago was the last time an English club laid hands on the trophy, a statistic made even more poignant by the uncertainty over the club's future.
They may have been gifted a lifeline by last week's losing bonus-point against Bath at the Rec, but with no immediate signs of a buyer they may not have the strength to grasp it.
A glance behind the scenes might, however, suggest the latter. Deep in their hearts, Edinburgh know they were lucky to catch Toulouse on one of their off-days which, like their on-days, they do better than anyone else.
They know, too, that they don't have much strength in depth. They are heavily reliant on key operators like David Denton, pictured, and Ross Rennie in the backrow, and half-backs Michael Blair and Greg Laidlaw.
When most of those are absent, as they were when Edinburgh were thrashed by Ulster in their RaboDirect Pro12 league encounter in the autumn, Edinburgh are a pale shadow of the side that so gloriously did for Toulouse.
Opponents Ulster are heavily dependent on their foreign mercenaries. Although home-grown Stephen Ferris is world-class at blindside the key movers in Ulster's march to the last four are all South African. Ruan Pienaar, the nerveless goal-kicking scrum-half is a reliable source, not just of points on the board, but game-management on the field.
Lock Johann Muller is a gigantic presence in the line-out, while No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, and veteran full-back Stefan Terblanche have both the experience and the skill to turn the course of any match. It's not hard to argue that without their foreign legion, Ulster would have struggled to get anywhere near the knockout stages.
It's also not hard to argue that the winner of this season's Heineken Cup will come from the other semi-final. Defending champions Leinster are aiming for a record-breaking third title in four years and, in evergreen Brian O'Driscoll, prolific outside-half Jonny Sexton and last season's European Player of the Year, Sean O'Brian, they have players of proven big-match temperament.
The team's pool stage demolition of Bath and the quarter-final dismissal of Cardiff were achieved with almost contemptuous ease. The removal of Toulouse and Munster has served only to slash the odds against them making history.
Clermont will be clutching at the straw that is offered by the venue for Sunday's tie.
Bordeaux's Stade Lescure still gives their supporters a long way to travel, but at least it is in France and at least it gives an extraordinarily powerful back-line a chance to hammer home some points. The French international centre pairing of Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie are certain to pose all sorts of problems for Leinster veterans O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, while wings Jimmy Malzieu and former All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu should prove a real handful.
But that's if they get enough of the ball and if they can avoid Leinster's vice-like defence. The chances are that they won't. The chances are that, come the final at the end of May, the engraver won't be inscribing a new name on the trophy.
The likelihood too is that, with Toulouse top of the French league, Leicester set for a record-breaking eighth success Premiership Final and Munster riding high in the RaboDirect Pro 12, the big guns of Europe – with the sad exception of Wasps – won't be silenced any time soon.