Sexton the Irish captain in waiting
Published 23/05/2011 | 05:00
Leinster became Heineken Cup champions in Cardiff on Saturday after a comeback of monumental proportions. Yet it was not a great match; it was an extraordinary match. A great contest requires exactly that, a contest.
This final was made up of two periods of 40 minutes in which one team totally dominated an opponent that did not come out to play.
In the aftermath of victory, national amnesia will set in but Northampton asked questions of Leinster -- and by extension Ireland -- that are deeply worrying in the context of a World Cup in little over three months.
At half-time the Premiership team held a 16-point lead, had heaped humiliation on the Leinster scrum and exposed defensive frailties hitherto unknown. The trophy was theirs for the taking.
The question to be asked is not how Leinster won, but how Northampton lost. The defining features were the relative fitness of the teams, the presence or absence of leaders and the referee. Huge demands are placed on English and French players and in the second half Northampton collapsed like a pricked balloon. It was the result of the cumulative demands of a season of over 30 games.
Soane Tonga'uiha, who had destroyed Mike Ross, simply stopped playing, the scrum dynamic changed and Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip began to play on the front foot to make important yards.
To be champions of Europe, Northampton only needed to keep Leinster at bay for the first 15 minutes of the second half and their opponents would have been forced to chase the game. Instead they coughed up the restart, a cardinal sin, and were too tired to control the scrum. If anybody doubts the role of fitness then one had only to watch Brian O'Driscoll fail to score a try that five years ago would have been a gimme and count the number of tackles he missed.
If there is any sense in Irish rugby then he must be protected from himself and put in cotton wool until the autumn -- starting next weekend in Limerick.
Much will be made of the half-time discussion in the dressing-room that supposedly changed the course of the match. The reality was that Jonny Sexton had assumed leadership of the side long before the break. As his dejected colleagues gathered behind the posts after conceding another soft try, it was the fly-half that took control.
Like O'Driscoll, Sexton leads by example. On Saturday, the future captaincy of Ireland moved from No 8 to No 10. Joe Schmidt had a dream team to work with, a group awash with individuals that can stand up and be counted in a crisis.
In contrast, Northampton were callow. In the first half their captain Dylan Hartley was immense but in scoring the third try he took a heavy knock to the head. He was never the same player nor, more importantly, the same leader thereafter.
If the first try for Leinster was crucial, the second was catastrophic for the English team and was the product of a major error by referee Romain Poite, who otherwise had a good game.
As Heaslip delivered the loop pass to Sexton, the No 8 ran straight into Phil Dowson and compounded the offence by continuing to obstruct the flanker, leaving oceans of space for his fly-half to score. It should have been a penalty to Northampton and a yellow card for Heaslip. The clearance might have steadied English nerves and against seven men, control might have been regained at the scrum.
Yet Leinster's performance was truly outstanding. Gordon D'Arcy was a powerhouse in the centre and at times in the first half seemed his team's only ball-carrier. Similarly too, the often derided Eoin Reddan worked selflessly for his team's cause, making crucial tackles and never losing control when, at times, others around him seemed to be in disarray.
On Saturday Leinster became a great team by their unwillingness to accept defeat, by the emergence of new leaders to pick up the tattered standard and above all by the triumph of talent over power and strength.
Joe Schmidt deserves credit for an outstanding success. He had the wit and imagination to change tack after his early season strategies stuttered and he earned the respect of his players so that they wanted to play for him.
The problem is now Declan Kidney's. Cardiff highlighted some problems that he may not have expected, but it gave him hope that he can generate the same belief in the national side.