Monday 21 August 2017

Exhausted Saints on their knees again

Northampton's arduous season ends in heart-breaking defeat after an inexplicable turnaround, writes Michael AylwinHorrific for Northampton. If they thought their suffering last weekend in their controversial Premiership semi-final at Leicester was bad, how will they recover from this experience?

Because, for a while, how they seemed to have recovered. At half-time they surely thought their rehabilitation from last weekend was complete. At 22-6, what a sight the scoreboard must have made for them. Perhaps it was too cathartic.

Or maybe 22-6 was too stinging a sight for Leinster. Something extraordinary happened in the interval. The Irishmen, comfortable favourites going into this, looked anything but the class act in recent editions of the Heineken Cup, not least this one. But they showed that class and then some after whatever it was that happened over the oranges.

Rarely can this competition have witnessed a turnaround like it. It was total rugby, total annihilation. Seventeen points in 13 minutes had cleared up the little matter of that half-time scoreboard.

The penalty that earned Leinster the lead before the third quarter was out was a poignant one. Leinster earned it by pulverising the Northampton scrum. In the context of what had taken place in the first half, this was nonsensical, inexplicable. For the second week running, Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, held his head in his hands.

Jonny Sexton slotted the penalty -- 23-22. All 23 points had come from the hand or boot of two-try Sexton.

This is sport at its most bewildering. How can a side that had so dominated another in all aspects of a game as multifarious as rugby find itself, after a 10-minute sponge-down in a changing room, be so comprehensively dominated by that same opponent?

It seems particularly inexplicable at so slow-burning and muscular a confrontation as the scrum. If one side has the measure of their opponents there, that must be it for the game, surely? Clearly not.

We all knew that if Northampton were to prevail in the face of so demanding an assignment, they had to dominate the scrums. Boy, did they do that for 40 minutes. Even when they were reduced to a seven-man pack with the yellow card shown to Brian Mujati midway through the first half, they blasted Leinster backwards at a scrum in front of their own posts and won a penalty. Next, they won a scrum against the head in front of Leinster's, and moments later Ben Foden was ghosting past Brian O'Driscoll, no less, for Northampton's second try.

It was carnage. The Saints had been on their knees a week earlier after that most titanic and emotionally draining of semi-finals. Now they were summoning emotion in the most effective manner. Leinster, for their part, were flapping hopelessly. Stephen Myler ambled with embarrassing ease between Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss in the build-up to Foden's try, while Jon Clarke was waved through by Shane Horgan for Northampton's third just before the break.

So what happened? They will say it is squad strength, and the way Northampton's valiant first XV, so heavily relied upon by their club, fell away in the second half did indeed look the capitulation of men exhausted. More cries will go up in England for a raising of the salary cap.

Northampton's magnificent props, Soane Tonga'uiha and Mujati, were both playing their 32nd match of the season, as were Phil Dowson and John Downey. Northampton know there is too much strain being placed on the bodies of such vast men.

But to Leinster the plaudits were rightly handed come the end. That second half was a remarkable exercise in controlled fury and precision. No side in this competition could have withstood it, whether or not they had been pounded at Welford Road the week before. Leinster's passage to this final had been, if not unbeaten like Northampton's, the kind of test that only the worthiest of champions could have negotiated.

Their second Heineken Cup will be remembered even more fondly than their first, two years ago. This is the age of the Irish in European rugby.

Observer

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