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Vincent Hogan: Sexton leads way in darkest hour

Like a stray breeze catching a top-hat, Jonny Sexton tossed his theory into the air.

Northampton were tired. He'd seen it. The streak of malevolence in their scrum was beginning to take its toll. They kept going to ground, buying time, blowing hard. "Let's get the next score and put a bit of a screw in their heads," he said. Words with an undertow of desperation, no question. But Leinster needed something. And they knew of Jonny's gift for getting the genie out of a bottle.

In Murrayfield two years ago, he had given the team a history lesson. Talked them through a journey that, when explored, bore the obvious stamp of fate. His voice startled the officer classes and, when they subsequently returned to their dressing-room as champions of Europe, Malcolm O'Kelly asked him how he had known. He was a kid then, now he's a team magistrate.

confidence

Brian O'Driscoll doesn't often defer to people but, on Saturday, he described Sexton as "man of the match by a million miles". His pitch wisdom and understanding of space, the radiated light of his confidence all distinguished Leinster's fly-half as someone essentially playing in solitude.

Everything Jonny did was a lyric. He had one of those days when he ought really to have played in a necktie.

"Besides what he produced in the second half, I think some of his words at half-time really struck a chord," said O'Driscoll. "He mentioned how this would make it all the more memorable because of what we had to do now. You could just see he had the bit between his teeth and he was ready for it.

"So to pick up two tries and a great kicking performance and just control (the game) the way he did, you know it was a phenomenal second-half performance from him.

"Jonny speaks when the time needs it. But I think he really stood up to the plate this time around and was there to be a senior player. You need your 10 to be a senior player and a leader and he was very much that for us today."

To a man, the players admitted they'd never known a game quite like it.

Sixteen points adrift at half-time, Leinster had been all but bullied off the park. Yet, somehow, they resumed with a hunger, not for survival, but vengeance.

Ben Foden described the 15 minutes immediately after half-time as the longest 15 minutes of his professional career. For Leinster were incorrigible. Sexton's two tries bookended a disallowed effort from Gordon D'Arcy.

The bullies of the first half were now reduced to startled deer.

"Sixteen points seems like a lot and it felt like a lot," admitted Sexton later. "But we knew that if we got the next score, it might really rattle them. We spoke at half-time about the fact that they had a tough game last week, going to Welford Road.

"It's so physical against Leicester, we know what it's like. We spoke about that, how wrecked we were the week after the Leicester game (quarter-final).

"So we thought that they'd tire and, maybe, start to doubt themselves. They absolutely smashed us in the first-half. We were shell-shocked. But we knew we could score unanswered points and build momentum against them."

Inevitably memories of storied comebacks from other codes were invoked, not least Liverpool's Houdini act in Istanbul six years ago. Yet, there was a technical dimension to the narrative too. Joe Schmidt realigned his back-row and, as Mike Ross revealed, the scrum was also readjusted.

"I think we were staring down the barrel of a gun," acknowledged the No 3. "But we changed our tactics slightly and it worked for us. We started doing to them what they were doing to us.

"I'd give a lot of credit to Greg Feek. I mean he had the video up at half-time and it was just a little tweak, it wasn't much. But, at this level, it's the difference between going forward and going backwards."

And the tweak?

"I just got a little bit closer to the hooker. That's it. I think there was a bit of anger and frustration in us. We knew we hadn't done ourselves justice. They were imposing their game on us and I suppose being 16 points down, we decided there was nothing left to lose here. Let's go for it.

"We weren't expecting to be that far behind. We'd given ourselves a mountain to climb."

O'Driscoll talked of being in the drug testers' room later, waiting for nature to take its course. Watching a video of the game, he was struck by Leinster's moments of good fortune too.

Just passes that previously had gone to ground, suddenly now sticking. And the more they stuck, the more Northampton found themselves looking towards the stadium clock. Had he ever seen a game swing like it?

"No, never," said O'Driscoll. "And the magnitude of it happening in a Heineken Cup final makes it so much sweeter. It's been a hard road. Beating a lot of the sides that we have beaten along the way and 16 points down at half-time, to be able to come back from that does I think answer a lot of questions about character and ability of a team.

"It is definitely one that you'll look back on in 15 years, far more than the first one, and go 'That was a good day!'"

There was heroism everywhere, but little snapshots caught the eye. Isa Nacewa's extraordinary fetch of a monster Garryowen. Bullocking 50-yard runs from Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien. Leo Cullen's remarkable hands in the build-up to Nathan Hines' try. Luke Fitzgerald's demonic hit on Shane Geraghty.

Northampton emptied their bench, but they were calling in a prayer group now, not a cavalry.

"There was no panic," insisted O'Brien. "We knew that we could score at any stage. At half-time, we said that we can score from anywhere against these lads, once we look after the ball.

"Honestly, there's a massive belief in this squad and this team. We were a little bit p***ed off with the way that we were playing, but we never doubted ourselves really."

Nacewa recalled the half-time declaration of "Let's not die on the floor here". Describing it as "the strangest game I've played in," he said: "I think we'll look back in 20 years and everyone will enjoy watching that match. They dominated us in the first half, but just the look on everyone's faces, we believed we were never out of the game. And obviously, Jonny led from the front."

By the end, Northampton had been left with nothing. Schmidt called Sexton ashore early, so that the crowd might summon acknowledgement of what they'd seen. Twenty-eight points and a half-time speech that Churchill could have penned.

"We're up there with the great teams now having won twice," said Sexton later. "But we want to push on to another level. We have to get to the semis and the final, year in, year out. That's what Toulouse, Munster, Leicester, all of these teams have done.

"Hopefully all of us will stay grounded and go and try to do that. When we saw our pool at the start of the year, just getting out would have been an achievement.

"Then we got Leicester, then Toulouse. If we had lost today, those memories were gone. They'd have counted for nothing. So that was the motivation as well, that we wanted all those great days that we had together to be remembered just like today."

And he left us for the airport, no doubt the keys of the plane in his pocket.

Irish Independent