Monday 23 October 2017

Leinster's courage under fire has lifted them to greatness

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I don't know how it felt for you, but Leinster made me mighty proud to be an Irishman on Saturday. It wasn't just the fact they won and joined the elite of Europe as two-time winners of the Heineken Cup, but the manner of the turnaround took sporting courage in adversity to another level.

Take every cliche in the book and still it fails to portray the magnitude of this comeback. If there has been a more courageous win in any sport in recent times, then I need reminding of it.

As the second half began, RTE commentator Hugh Cahill asked me what it would take for Leinster to turn this one around. Somewhat flippantly, I stated the obvious when suggesting two converted tries in the third quarter might put them in with a shout.

Not for a minute did I believe it would happen, yet amazingly just 15 minutes into that second period, they were ahead.

Much will be made of what was said in the dressing-room at half-time and rightly so, but given the age profile of this team, the proven depth in ability, and the winning mentality, it could well simply have come from each player's desire to raise the bar -- as every man would have known he had frozen in the first half.

And cometh the hour, cometh the men. I cannot recall a more dramatic turnaround over the course of a 15-minute period whereby the hunter became the hunted.

Northampton were shell-shocked, physically battered and, once behind, emotionally drained.

In a season of great Leinster performances, that third-quarter extravaganza came as close as it gets to rugby perfection. Were it the All Blacks who had produced such a display, we'd have been salivating.

But it was Leinster, and they did it on the biggest stage of all.

They can now be truly acclaimed as the great team we thought them to be, because they lifted the trophy for the second time in three years; because they turned a 16-point deficit into an 11-point win; and most of all because they are a team and a squad littered with leaders of serious substance.

When the chips are down and the tide is flowing the other way, you look for individuals to stand up and be counted.On Saturday Leinster had such men in abundance.

Take your pick from Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonny Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Leo Cullen, Nathan Hines, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

It is genuinely unfair to highlight individuals, but when you score 28 points in a game of this magnitude, including two tries in a second-half masterclass, it is difficult to ignore.

On Saturday, Sexton the out-half orchestrator supreme hit global status. And you can be sure it won't faze him in the slightest. He is still a young man making his way in the game, but he has his magical feet firmly grounded.

For proof, look to the quality of his first-half restarts (for Horgan) under pressure every bit as much as his game-changing second-half tries.

And what of the equally extraordinary O'Brien? It was he who lit the fuse on Leinster's second-half physicality whereby the Blues took control of the match tempo and with it the title.

Up to that point, the Heineken Cup seemed Northampton's to lose.

Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross stuck to their tasks and slowly but surely turned the hitherto creaking scrum around.

From that fundamental acorn did the mighty oak tree grow.

All told, it made for pretty much the complete performance in adversity by the best all-round team in the competition.

I love Joe Schmidt's style, I love his philosophy and most of all I love his humility, whether in victory or defeat. On Saturday he proved conclusively that nice guys can finish first.

Leinster have a great coach and a great captain in a team full of great leaders. According to the dictionary, 'great' means being of exceptional talent and achievement.

The talent in this Leinster team has now been matched by massive achievement and all of their qualities were on full display in an incredible second-half power show. It made for a great end to a great week and it has to go down as the most remarkable Irish Heineken Cup win to date. Right now, blue is the new red.

Irish Independent

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