Crucial clash of the fighting Irish out-halves to decide European rugby final

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Irish side Leinster take on French squad La Rochelle in Marseille on Saturday, the Irishmen looking for their fifth European Championship title. Most commentators agree that the clash will hinge on the struggle between two individuals, Johnny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara. Only one of them will be playing.

This European Rugby Cup final is being billed as a Franco-Irish clash, but it's really an all-Irish affair.

The match is, indeed, being played in the southern French city of Marseille; and of course, a French team, La Rochelle, is involved. But that's about as far as it goes.

The La Rochelle coach is Ronan O'Gara, a man who played brilliantly for Ireland in a long and glittering career, helping his club, Munster, to two victories in this very competition.

It was Johnny Sexton, the Leinster captain, who replaced O'Gara at outhalf in the Irish squad. Their rivalry is notoriously "tricky", to use O'Gara's polite expression. They respect one another, officially, but that won't cut much ice in Marseille.

These two are competitors at the dark end of competition. Neither will settle for being second best.

Sexton is a visionary game-shaper; O'Gara is a blade-sharp analyst. The former Munster player will know that his old rival is not the only threat posed by this star-studded team, but neither will he be unaware that closing down Sexton is a sure way to upset the Leinster machine.

The last time the two sides met, in last year's semi-final, Sexton was not available due to injury, and O'Gara's men advanced to the final with a convincing display of power rugby and intelligent adaptation.

The crucial difference in Marseille on Saturday will be Sexton's presence.

A game plan to counter that will be O'Gara's central objective.

"He’s going to be 37 in July and that’s some achievement to be playing the way he is at the minute," says O'Gara of the man who holds one of the keys to this game.

"We need to get stuck into him, that’s the biggest compliment I can give him because I think they play differently when he’s on the pitch.”

Sexton can expect a tough afternoon. But he's seen others.

Leinster start with an unchanged squad

On the injuries front, Leinster would appear to start with the advantage.

Tadgh Furlong and James Lowe were both doubtful in the wake of injuries sustained in the semi-final against Toulouse two weeks ago. Both are fit, and so Leinster coach Leo Cullen (another former Ireland team-mate of O'Gara's) is able to name an unchanged 23-man squad.

La Rochelle will have to do without two of their New Zealand stalwarts: former All Black scrum half, Tawera Kerr-Barlow broke his hand in the match against Racing 92 and will not start. Open-side flanker Victor Vito twisted an ankle in that game, and is out of the decider.

La Rochelle will, however, be boosted by the return of their giant Australian second-row, Will Skelton, fit after a leg injury. And French international fullback, Brice Dulin, returns to the starting line up.

But those are just technicalities.

Watch the guy wearing the No 10 shirt for Leinster, and the other Irish guy in the La Rochelle coaching box. Their facial expressions and body language will tell you exactly how this game is going.

May the best Irishman win.

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