Monday 27 January 2020

Brendan Fanning: 'When Leinster's heroics set alarm bells ringing in Europe'

Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan enjoy the moment after Leinster's victory over Northamption Saints in 2011
Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan enjoy the moment after Leinster's victory over Northamption Saints in 2011
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The stadium formerly known as The Millennium, in Cardiff, is the favourite for many of us lucky enough to go there on a regular basis. Located downtown, which helps, whether the roof is closed or open it wraps you up and stimulates the senses like no other. If a certain Danish brewer did stadia then this would be in their portfolio.

Every time you go there, either for Test matches or European finals days, there is a moment pre-match where you always acknowledge the happy coincidence of being lucky enough to be there, and to be paid for the privilege. To a certain extent, everything thereafter is a bonus.

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So for different reasons we remember some of the circumstances surrounding the most dramatic of Leinster's four Heineken European Cup wins.

The press box in the Millennium is not great for its views, but hugely welcome for a position that allows you disappear back into the working area without forcing your way through the great unwashed. And while your grabbing a cuppa, colleagues are running this way and that trying to absorb and relay the story of the first 40 minutes. It was on the steps down into the press room that day when we encountered a colleague who was seething at the way Leinster were playing.

We were struck by his reaction. Yes, they had been more spectators than participants up to that point, but while it was natural for the travelling Irish press corps to want them to win - in 2006 and 2008 in the same place the same hacks had been praying for Munster to see off Biarritz and Toulouse respectively - this seemed overly personal. We weren't on the payroll. It wasn't like we had invested so much time and emotion in the operation that we felt the pain of their retreating scrum, the impact every time Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati would cause Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross a new problem.

Rather it was like this man felt personally let down. He had gone in to bat for them; predicted they would win; nailed his colours to the mast. And then they played like this? In a rare moment of prescience we suggested that the picture might change if they could get just their hands on the ball for a couple of minutes before turning it over.

We didn't feel sufficiently assured to lob a few bob on the impending turnaround, even if it wasn't a crazy notion. This was a team who had hurdled Tigers in the quarters and Toulouse in the semis, neither of them handy runouts. Yes, both had been in Lansdowne Road, but there was enough talent in this Leinster squad to suggest they hadn't quite folded the tent.

All 15 starters were Test players. It was ironic that the least experienced in this regard, Isa Nacewa - his solitary cap had come off the bench eight years earlier for Fiji in the World Cup - was a top quality team leader, on the podium of best ever imports to the Irish professional game. They could play. The question was: when?

The nature of the dilemma was best illustrated by the speed with which it got sorted. If conceding the third try on the stroke of half-time had been a sickener, to put Northampton Saints 22-6 ahead - then scoring first after the break was imperative. They did better than that: Johnny Sexton, whose half-time words have assumed greater gravity with each telling of the story, scored two tries and kicked a long range penalty to put Leinster in the lead by the 56th minute. And that pretty much was that. Thereafter it was hard not to feel something for Saints who were out on their feet, with a previously dominant scrum going backwards. Their coaching staff must have been willing it to end.

The comeback nailed Leinster on as the standard bearers in Ireland, a team who could dig themselves out of a very deep hole when others couldn't see any daylight.

More than that it confirmed them as the best team in Europe. A year later they would retain the trophy. For Ireland to have won five out of seven Heineken Cups between 2006 and 2012 would reflect a dominance that matched England's run from 1998 to 2004. It hasn't been done since.

The best bit was the discomfort it caused elsewhere in Europe. Munster had stepped out to take some air only for Leinster to break the door down and storm the room. For many casual observers it was the day the lid was lifted on Sexton's savage intensity to get to the top of his game, and to bring his teammates with him. That performance in the third quarter was extraordinary. He had 16 Tests on his CV by then but was still arguing the toss in green with Ronan O'Gara.

Knowing Leinster would be driven by Sexton was an alarm bell for others to whinge about the Irish system, one that could allow players to be managed on the journey rather than thrown into rush hour traffic week after week. If you could carve out some time and space for players of his ability then how good could they become?

A year later Leinster and Ulster hired the hall in Twickenham for a sell-out private party that rang the same alarm even louder. The clubs of England and France were unimpressed. Change would come with the demise of ERC, but after a brief pause the Irish provinces would retake their seats near the top of the class. That magic in the Millennium will likely never be repeated, but interestingly neither Sexton nor Leinster have gone away.

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