Friday 22 November 2019

Sensational Sexton steers Blues home


JOHN O'BRIEN at the Millennium Stadium

IT seemed only like yesterday we were sitting in these same seats watching a vast sea of red engult this great bowl of a stadium.

Paul O'Connell trying in vain to cajole Declan Kidney onto the victory podium, Anthony Foley lifting his son over the barrier to join the celebrations. Good things have happened to Irish rugby teams in Cardiff and, yesterday, it proved to be a happy hunting ground again. Only the colour was different. Blue, as the man said, is officially the new red.

There is a part of the Leinster psyche, scarcely expressed, that is distracted with the notable achievements of their southern rivals. For them yesterday will have squared off some important business. Winning a final in Cardiff. Joining the illustrious band of rugby superpowers with more than one European title. And in rescuing a seemingly hopeless position to see off Northampton by a scoreline of 33-22, they even fashioned their own version of the Miracle Match on the highest stage of all.

Some sporting occasions steadfastly test our powers of reason. Yesterday's game will provide much fun for the seasoned rugby analysts for the next few days and, no doubt, the most ardent amateur psychologists will fancy a go at cracking the code. In the dizzying moments after the game ended, however, it was as much as many of us could muster to reach for that hoary old cliche: a game of two peculiar halves.

How else could you begin to explain it? Northampton sprinted out of the blocks and had Leinster reeling with the pace and power of their game. Joe Schmidt's side trailed 22-6 at the interval and it provided only a shred of comfort to fraught Leinster supporters to suggest it could have been much worse. Leinster had been second-best in every area and an embarrassing shambles at scrum time. Their cause looked close to hopeless at that point.

The story of the day was how they turned it so dramatically around. Had Schmidt summoned something deep within them in the dressing-room? Or did Northampton, so utterly dominant for 40 minutes, simply run out of steam? Or was it, perhaps, a combination of the two?

The magnificent Jonathan Sexton -- two tries, three conversions, four penalties (Count it: a scarcely credible 28 points) -- spoke of how they had been "shellshocked" by Northampton's rousing start and their need to regroup at half-time. He reminded them too how Liverpool had retrieved a similarly hopeless position against AC Milan in the 2005 European Cup final and it showed that the Leinster players still had the maturity and enough confidence intact to believe they could pull it off.

It helped, of course, that Northampton looked as if they were running on empty. Leinster set off upon the restart as if the Premiership side was a mere Junior Cup team standing in the way of their right to be crowned the best club side in Europe. Sexton set the ball rolling with a try four minutes in. He added a second nine minutes later. Roll on another four minutes and his radar-like boot was kicking Leinster in front for the first time. A 17-point turnaround in exactly 17 minutes. Remarkable.

Early on, you simply couldn't have countenanced such drama. Although there was a large slice of Leinster misfortune about Phil Dowson's opening try for Northampton -- a thumping Sexton clearance from inside his own 22 unluckily trickling over the dead-ball line -- they had been under the cosh since the opening bell and the score had been coming. What was more alarming was the manner in which Leinster were being pushed aside. How shocking that a team that had coped with Leicester and Toulouse could find no apparent answer for the power being exerted by Northampton.

Had they been diminished by the favourite's tag? Leinster might not have been the heaviest favourites in the history of this tournament, but few teams have approached this stage in the knowledge that at least one bookmaker had already paid out on their inevitable triumph. It was difficult not to speculate that the weight of that conviction might have preyed on Leinster minds?

By common consent they were the best team in the competition but sometimes, remember Barcelona, the best teams can be beaten. When Dylan Hartley touched down for Northampton's third try on the cusp of half-time the gap was 16 points and the best team was on its knees. On the betting exchanges Northampton traded at odds of just over five to one on. Not insurmountable, but it would take something exceptional to defy them.

But defy them they did. The new half came and, with it, an entirely new game. Leinster won't imagine for a second that they played well yesterday but, somehow, they still sauntered to victory and, when the songs could finally be sung and the celebrations started, they felt as sweet as they could be. Two-times Hein-eken Cup champions. The supporters who hailed them yesterday and those who flock to welcome them to the RDS at 3.30 this afternoon will give thanks for a truly extraordinary day.

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