Top by a distance after making the hard yards
Published 22/05/2011 | 05:00
Heineken Cup finals tend to be close-run affairs. For whatever reason, while other sports have a good number of their big days rained on by a lopsided result, the most compelling club competition in the world aims for games separated by a score, and for all but one year (Wasps in 2007) they had got them. So cast your mind back, not to half time yesterday, but to the last play of the first half at the Millennium Stadium.
Northampton Saints were leading 17-6 at the time and had been blowing Leinster out of the water for the guts of 40 minutes. More than that, when they had been going after the flotsam and jetsam and sledging the bits that were left. One of the mouthiest teams in the Premiership, they were taking every opportunity to rub it in. And man had they plenty of those, for such was their extraordinary physicality that Leinster could get no traction in the game.
Joe Schmidt's team had been milled at the breakdown, previously an area of expertise for them, and hustled into knock-ons with the little bit of ball that they did win. When Saints attacked again in that last play of the half, their captain Dylan Hartley forced his way over for a decision that would be made upstairs. If it was positive then his team could lead by 22-6, and the damage to their opponents at having lost another 50-50 call would have been immense. Leinster lost it. And still they came back to win.
At half-time we came across a colleague who looked so wounded and depressed that he might slip out the side door and beat the rush. What could you say, other than it wasn't possible for a team to maintain the tempo and force and accuracy that Saints had shown in that first half -- not after what they had been through against Leicester last weekend. Not without a bench that could rescue them when the energy drained. And not against a team who you knew would fight back in the second half.
Truthfully nobody knew how far that fightback would take Leinster, for it would require either no scrums at all after the break, or else a sea change in how they were contested.
It would be a sea change. And the tide that had washed over Leinster in the first 40 minutes, with three penalties conceded in the first nine scrums inside half an hour, turned around. The sight of the Saints scrum going up and back in that second period confirmed the most dramatic comeback we have seen in a Heineken Cup final.
The 72,456 at the Millennium will consider themselves privileged to have witnessed the contest. Had Jonny Sexton knocked over the penalty he missed in the last quarter then he would have walked off with a 31-point haul and the record for most points in a final. Instead he had to settle for man of the match. We think he will cope with the disappointment.
Sexton is admired by his team-mates as much for his mental strength, his appetite for big challenges, as his technical ability to knock the ball over the black spot. He was a key figure in the changing room at the break when Leinster looked at the deficit and worked out that against opponents who would tire -- they had already got through 10 minutes without Brian Mujati, albeit winning that period 7-3 -- the game could change.
But it would require more than Leinster getting some ball. It had to be quick ball. They had to play with tempo, to raise the stakes, and to make sure that Saints couldn't use the scrum as a vehicle to drive over Leinster's revival.
When they opened the second half with 11 phases that came to an end under the Saints' sticks with a turnover, you wondered if maybe it just wouldn't be their day. They were enthused by the territory gained however, and came back for more. In the space of nine minutes Sexton scored twice, first skating outside the stranded Soane Tonga'uiha, and then running a wraparound for his second that opened up the hole to score. And he tapped over both conversions, so before we were done with the third quarter it was a two point game. And by 57 minutes he nudged them ahead with a perfect penalty.
It's worth remembering that had Sexton skewed his kicks it would have offered Saints a lifeline but Leinster's second half was all about ruthlessness. For the first 40 they had been battered -- starting with Phil Dowson scoring a fine try off a blind side attack from another strong scrum on seven minutes, made worse by conceding a second to Ben Foden when Mujati was in the bin -- and no area of their game offered any hope. Steve Myler, a man they had targeted as a weak link, had converted both and nailed a difficult penalty. He looked like he was having a great time.
It was all Sexton after the break. Well, Sexton and Leinster's scrum, and Shane Jennings' extra gas over the bulk of Kevin McLaughlin, and the carrying of Richardt Strauss and Sean O'Brien who at one point made a 40 metre charge with half of the English midlands hanging out of him.
It helped their cause that Dowson was binned just after the hour, for a deliberate knock on, allowing Sexton to make it 26-22 and weakening Saints' already draining effort. When Nathan Hines forced his way over from close-in on 65 minutes it gave Sexton the chance to put Leinster more than two scores clear, and even though we still had a good amount of time it was never going to be profitable for the weaker team.
As in 2000 when they came tired to Twickenham against Munster, and horsed into them from the off, they produced really impressive rugby to give them the start they needed, but couldn't keep it going. At least not against a team who had the resolve to do themselves justice. And that's exactly what Leinster did in Cardiff yesterday: they lived up to their status as the best team in Europe. They join Leicester, Munster, Toulouse and Wasps as two-time winners of the trophy. Good company to be keeping. It is enhanced by having them there.
Sunday Indo Sport