Reality check sees inept Leinster get what they deserve
O'Connor's men facing trickier route to last eight after late siege falls short
Perhaps it was the idiotic booing of Dylan Hartley from a mindless minority -- you know the type, 12 pubs of Christmas, lights on their jumpers -- but all was not as it seemed on Saturday.
Leinster 9 N'hampton 18
And yet, as Leinster chunter cheerlessly into work this morning, they can at least be consoled by the thought that, even though it seems as if their world has been upended, it still remains on its axis.
For sure, Matt O'Connor's men have made progress a tad more interesting than it should have been before 6 o'clock on Saturday after an all-too sloppy performance in so many facets.
Yet, having unpredictably failed to respond to what was a predictably stout, if belated, demonstration of physical intensity from a proud Northampton Saints side, Leinster are still well-placed to return to the last eight in this season's Heineken Cup, following their early elimination last season.
At least, that will prove to be the case once they don't serve up a repeat of this performance which will be unacceptable in Castres next month.
Despite a breathless finish in an epic cup clash -- the dearth of quality for long stretches was thoroughly compensated by crunching, brutal physicality -- Leinster got what they deserved.
And yet, had they emulated the All Blacks and clinched a dramatic late win on the same ground as the invincible Kiwis had done last month, many would have nodded sagely and assumed that a home win had been inevitable all day.
Leinster seemed to carry that attitude too. Much as they virulently pleaded not guilty to charges of complacency, it seemed as if they felt that the Saints would blow themselves out at some stage.
It all served to blow many assumptions out of the water; chiefly, that Leinster are not as good as we may have thought they were while Northampton are certainly not the fraudulent outfit who shamed themselves at home a week earlier.
It is all about perception.
Had this month's sequence of results been reversed; few would have quibbled that Leinster were still on course for a top four seeding and a guaranteed quarter-final here next spring.
The bald fact remains that Leinster have still emerged in credit against their chief pool rival by 5-4 in match points.
And it was arguably just as significant that Castres flopped dismally in Wales the night before when presented with the chance to propel themselves into contention.
So Leinster's fate remains beneath their command, a stark contrast to the mad scramble for points that undid them last season after this back-to-back sequence against Clermont.
Their supporters will just hope they can control their destiny a mite more efficiently than they managed this effort in front of 47,230 fans, with nothing typifying their lack of control than the frantic endgame.
The multi-phase break initiated by Jamie Heaslip's powerful burst from centrefield, but was ultimately undone by his careless fumble when men out wide were impatiently awaiting the final pass; it all summed up Leinster's unstructured, stuttering display.
Their attempts to implement the beastly and beatific combination that had blinded the Saints in England were undermined by the English side's vastly improved physicality in rucks and mauls.
"That was our key message during the week," said their captain Hartley.
"We got beat up at home last week on both sides of the gain line. Taking the ball into contact we got held up with the infamous choke tackle that halted our game and they were dominant on the other side of the tackle.
"Today we did both of those things very well. Last week we focused too much on winning at home, we always win at home, so this week for us was about 'let's go there and focus on the process'.
"That for us was our physicality in the tackle, carrying the ball, and all those sorts of things and not really worrying about the result. We just came to play.
"We didn't score off the mauls but what we did do was just keep the ball in the 22 and build phases and took the game to them. It was pleasing. We just came to play."
When Leinster played, as in Luke Fitzgerald's magical second-half jinking dash, the support was poor and Jerome Garces' impatience with the ball-carrier, rather than the tackler, conspired against the home side.
Leinster didn't need any help from the referee though. They made a surfeit of unforced errors.
On numerous occasions, they coughed up ball from attacking set-plays and there was one risible move attempted in the second half from a scrum that was as dry as an overcooked turkey.
From a 70th minute attacking scrum position, Leinster shifted the ball mindlessly from left to right, making little yardage, before shunting the ball into touch.
And so, with their side clearly missing the ball-carrying ballast of Cian Healy and late withdrawal Sean O'Brien (dead leg), Leinster struggled to get the front-foot ball that they had wallowed in a week earlier.
Destroyed at the breakdown, delivering slipshod service from their set-piece and exiting hesitantly, this was a fitful display which will serve as a timely reminder to many of its constituent parts of the standards required.
"I don't think we brought maximum physicality to the breakdown today," agreed Ian Madigan, himself off colour for much of the piece.
"I think the penalty count at the breakdown would have shown that and the fact we didn't get quick ruck ball showed we certainly weren't accurate enough at the ruck."
Even Brian O'Driscoll, majestic in Franklin's Gardens, was rendered a humdrum figure on his home turf, outplayed by George North, the giant Welshman shifting to midfield after the away side were also forced into a late reshuffle.
Their changes damaged them less; early intent was signalled by Hartley as his side kicked to the corner and, as they kicked off a productive day from the rolling maul, a Courtney Lawes carry and a great North run saw them collect an easy opening seven-pointer.
Leinster kicked poorly and struggled to retain possession while their core skills were often abysmal; all the while Northampton maintained their physical intent; a half-time lead of 7-3 scarcely reflected their vengeful response and clearly flattered an errant home side.
O'Connor's men regrouped after half-time and a Lee Dickson restart spill produced prolonged pressure but you felt the Saints were the happier to concede just the three points from an eight-minute occupation metres from their line.
Soon, Northampton were back on familiar territory -- Leinster's -- and they continued to spurn three-pointers, as if to permanently parade their broiling regret at such meek submission a week earlier.
The arrival of a new Leinster front row hardly helped matters either and Michael Bent's implosion at loose-head gifted the visitors another three points but Madigan responded and somehow it remained a one-point ball game.
Leinster were almost competing with themselves to devise new methods of ineptitude; failing to launch a thrower in a lineout another addition inside the last quarter.
Remarkably, Northampton opted for a drop-goal with a penalty advantage in the final two minutes; it would have made more sense to play for the penalty and kill the clock.
It was completely contrary to what logic dictated at that precise moment. Then again, it was that kind of evening.
Leinster -- R Kearney; D Kearney (Z Kirchner 61), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (J Gopperth 79), L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath (M Bent 57), S Cronin, M Ross (M Moore 61); D Toner, M McCarthy L Cullen 74); R Ruddock (K McLaughlin 57), S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).
Northampton -- K Pisi; J Elliott, G North, L Burrell, T Collins; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali'I 54); A Waller (E Waller 71), D Hartley (capt) (M Haywood 75), S Ma'afu (T Mercey 54), C Lawes (Dowson 74), C Day, C Clark, T Wood, S Manoa (S Dickinson 68).
REF -- J Garces (France)