Sunday 22 September 2019

Four-star generals shed tears of joy after Battle of Bilbao

After facing down Racing’s war of attrition Leinster find terrible beauty amidst brutality

For different reasons it was an emotional day for Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa. Photo: Sportsfile
For different reasons it was an emotional day for Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Leinster had to offer up body and soul as a sacrificial offering in what was a savage game of rugby.

But within the brutality was a terrible beauty. Leinster winced but never wavered and at the end of The Game of Collisions they just about won the record-equalling fourth gold star.

The day was click-on-the-wipers drizzly. It suited Racing's plan to win by war. Maybe it's a French thing. They have been practising rugby wars of attrition ever since Verdun. Leinster are aching today but the pain of defeat is far worse.

Rob Henshaw pulled his dead leg after him at the end. His parents were at the other side of a raised barrier.

Henshaw climbed up and lay flat on a sheet of timber. His dad could only get to kiss his boy by lying flat on the other side. Their heads touched. Secret words of filial love were spoken. The Dad was in tears. The Mam was in tears. But these were tears of joy for their boy who missed most of the Grand Slam through injury.


Laura Sexton is six months pregnant. I am sworn to secrecy but for the 'Hello' readers who sometimes scan these pages in search of gossip I can exclusively reveal the baby is either a boy or a girl.

Laura and Jonathan Sexton are a team. They have being going out with each other since they were 15. Somehow she made her way to the sideline through the throng for that special kiss.

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He always calls her on the night before big games. And she always knows the right words to say from her honest mother's heart. Her man went in hurt and he came out hurt. For Racing targeted channel 10. The plan was to wear him out or take him out. Sexton, as ever, would not back down. In the end his right leg was only for standing on.

Rob Kearney was as good as written off two seasons ago, until Joe Schmidt told him he "needed a big one" before stepping on to Soldier Field. Kearney had a big game for Leinster and he had a big game for him.

Isa Nacewa retired, came back and kicked the winning penalties. His Dad legged it up the steps. Couldn't watch. He travelled all the way from New Zealand for the game and the poor man had to spend the last seconds cloistered away in the toilets.

The cheer went up and the Dad wasn't sure if the kick went over. A French roar sounds the same as a Leinster roar. Isa kept his head when all about covered their eyes. The Dad was freed.

Cian Healy was the only player of the 30-plus who carried for a gain every time. Tadhg Furlong's county man JFK wrote a book called Profiles in Courage. If he was still around there would be a chapter on the final Furlong, the pride of the Boys of Wexford.

I met Helen O' Loughlin before the game. Helen from Mayo is always in good form, no matter what. Her husband Mick died a good few years ago. Their son Rory was on the match-day 23. Mick and myself were house-mates for two years.

Mick was kind and decent. I wish he was here. But I think Mick must be still around, minding his boy. Rory has done him proud.

James Ryan won man of the match in his first final. He won the lineout and recycled every carry in to the right bin. Devin Toner has never played better. He must have Velcro stitched to his finger- tips.

Garry Ringrose got in every tackle. It was the day a boy became a man, the day he slew his first lion.

Fair play to the Racing supporters, who stayed on until the cup was presented and the last Racing player left the field of play some 20 minutes after the game.

I travelled with the Leinster fans. They were nearly as lively as the Munster supporters. The tapas bars had a beano.

The fans feasted on pigs' ears and pepper stuffed privates from unknown beasts. The Basques are like the Corkonians, no part of any animal goes unheralded.

There were pintxos bars that would have fitted in to the English Market as easily as Lego.

The Basques are a small race of people but are perfectly proportioned. I'd be a big man in Bilbao. There are all sorts of Celtic connections, going back thousands of years and the shared DNA is written on every face. Now it seems their Troubles are over. There was hardly a police person to be seen. Bilbao was a happy city on Saturday.

So I'm here lying in the bed writing in an apartment that was so hard to find with drink in, we wondered if the flat been leased out for a while by the Spanish branch of the witness-protection scheme.


Just across the street, the bells of San Sebastian's Buen Pastor cathedral are ringing a te deum for Leinster on this holy but very wet Sunday morning.

The champions of Europe are given the honour of stitching a gold star across the chest, like that mighty man Sylvest.

They have four now with more to come. Big chest.

The blues will take some stopping but Munster will put it up to Leinster next Saturday.

As a Munster man, I was just proud to be Irish. We salute you then men of Leinster, the four-star generals of all of Europe, who fought the bravest fight of all.

And bestowed a shared, reflected glory on all of us.

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