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Awesome Leinster leave Saints shell-shocked

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Bryn Palmer | 21:50 UK time, Saturday, 21 May 2011

Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

"That was some match," said a stunned but immensely satisfied Leinster supporter as he reluctantly left the scene of his side's greatest triumph.

You're not wrong, mate. Even by the standards of this ridiculously exhilarating tournament, this Heineken Cup final was a match for the ages.

The best ever? Quite probably. Stade Francais-Leicester in 2001 might have matched it for drama, Wasps-Toulouse in 2004 for quality.

That was a topic for debate as supporters stepped out into the Cardiff evening to put the final touches to a remarkable weekend of European rugby.

All one can say without fear of contradiction is that none of the 72,456 souls fortunate enough to be at Millennium Stadium on Saturday will ever forget the experience.

A game of two halves doesn't remotely do it justice. How can a side - even one as well equipped as Leinster - who were so outplayed in the first half, trailing by 16 points and staring into the abyss, turn things around to such an extent that the game was won within 25 minutes of the resumption?

In simple terms, according to those involved, it went something like this. Sort the scrum out, keep hold of the ball, believe in miracles.

Leinster scrummaging coach Greg Feek, the former All Black prop, gathered the forwards together at half-time, showed them a few choice video cuts of what Northampton were doing to pulverise them at the set-piece, and told them to "use their brains and figure it out".

"We were maybe guilty of going off on our own in the first half, everyone doing their own thing in the scrum," explained lock and captain Leo Cullen, who joined some celebrated company - Martin Johnson, Fabien Pelous, Lawrence Dallaglio - in leading his side to two Heineken Cup victories.

leinster595.jpgBrian O'Driscoll leads the Leinster celebrations in Cardiff. Photo: Getty

"Their loose-head, [Soane Tonga'uiha], started to stand up and as we came forward, they got a bit of a surge on, and their tight-head Brian Mujati stays really close to [hooker] Dylan Hartley, they pincer in together.

"It is all about momentum. The scrum is a big psychological tool, and once we got a bit of go-forward there, it had a massive knock-on effect."

Head coach Joe Schmidt spoke about the importance of holding onto the ball. He pointed out that even in a one-sided first half, on the occasions they had not knocked it on or spilled it in the tackle, his men had made breaks and looked dangerous.

An animated Leinster fly-half Jonathan Sexton, "a man possessed" according to Brian O'Driscoll, also got a few issues off his chest. And when he had done that, he used the example of Liverpool's Champions League final comeback against AC Milan in 2005 to remind his team-mates that audacious comebacks were very much in the realm of the possible.

"I watch a lot of sport, and I get slagged for it in the dressing room, but I knew these things happen," said Sexton afterwards. "That match just stuck in my memory for some reason."

Belief was also a big word in the dressing room. "I reiterated that I still believed we could do it, and Jonny reiterated that as well," said Schmidt. "We knew we would have to score first, that was pivotal. Once that happened, I think the players sensed the momentum shift, and certainly the crowd did. They came over in their swarms, and they They really helped."

There was also the simple matter of some supremely talented rugby players doing the things that made them favourites - with good reason - at the outset.

"At half-time we didn't have much option but to go out there and play the way we knew we were capable of," noted Cullen. "At 16 points down, the shackles were certainly off."

On such dramatic transformations are reputations made and destroyed. In the former category, Sexton's heroics - two tries, three conversions, four penalties, a rallying point for his side - enjoyed his finest hour, and he has already had a few in a burgeoning CV that will surely have '2013 Lion' added to it in due course.

Think the 2009 Heinken semi against Munster and final against Leicester, when he stepped in for the injured Felipe Contepomi with aplomb. Think this year's demolition of England in the Six Nations finale.

Sexton is clearly a man who relishes the big occasion. He is also, at 25, clearly not afraid to show leadership and spell out what is required in a crisis.

It would be harsh in the extreme to suggest that Northampton may now be mentioned when the words 'capitulation' or 'choking' crop up in relation to major occasions in team sports, but as Ben Foden acknowleged, the manner of this defeat was a "bitter pill to swallow".

"We play this game to be in moments like that, and going into half-time 22-6 up, with the way we were playing, we had one foot through the door," said the England full-back.

"But these moments will bring us together as a team, and hopefully this will help us make sure it doesn't happen again, so if we are in a similar situation again, we we will get a different result."

Fine words, eloquently spoken in the aftermath of a shattering defeat. Foden may have dropped the odd high bomb but he had nothing to reproach himself for. For most of this bewitching final, he was a tower of strength and courage, in attack and defence, epitomised by his try-saving tackle on O'Driscoll.

Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder looked crestfallen, as well he might. "It is still raw at the moment," he said, "but in time we will reflect on what a great season we have had.

"We played in a tough [Premiership] semi-final last week [against Leicester] and a tough final today. I am just immensely proud of the team."

Mallinder knows though that great seasons are not remembered beyond the immediate vicinity of the club unless they have trophies attached to them. Eight days ago, a domestic and European double was still a target. Now those dreams have turned to dust, and a long summer of introspection beckons.

Instead, it is Leinster who retain that ambition, seeking to become only the fourth club - after Toulouse (1996), Leicester (2001 and 2002) and Wasps (2004) - to win the Heineken Cup and their domestic title in the same season.

A Magners League final at the Thomond Park home of great rivals Munster beckons next Saturday, but their stature within the European game is already secure.

Having joined the ranks of two-time winners or more, Leinster - with the core of their side approaching their peak - look a good bet to go on and win more Heineken titles in the years to come.

Northampton can take solace in the fact the Irish province endured many a setback in the tournament's knock-out stages before blowing down the door in 2009. The confidence and belief that have stemmed from that were there for all to see in Cardiff. In the second half anyway.

"Sides that have won this competition have been together for a long time," noted Mallinder. "That is what we need to do. Four years ago, we were in the first division [National League One, the level below the Premiership]. We have come a long way to where we are now, and hopefully we can stay up there and win one of these big ones."

No neutrals with anything ressembling a heart would begrudge them that, after their part in one of the great rugby occasions.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great game. Northampton were excellent in the first half and did not allow Leinster to get into the game for the first 40mins. Leinster were superb in the second half and showed their superior quality. Sexton was immense. Based on their second half performance, the route they took to win the trophy and their superior style of rugby, I think they are worthy champions.

  • Comment number 2.

    Again all you can say is what spirit this team posses and the talent that the province has with the new blood that is now coming to the fore!

    Oh and thanks to this victory there is now a 4th Irish team in the Heino Cup ..... come on Connacht!!!!!

  • Comment number 3.

    Fair play Northampton. You played immense. But thats not enough against this team. You were blown away in the second half by a force of nature. As a very happy Leinster fan all I can quote is Sir Alex "suprududem..."

  • Comment number 4.

    A lot of people are comparing this to Liverpool's Champions League final but I think this is quite a different animal. Liverpool simply came out at half time with no pressure, nothing to lose and combined with Milan taking their foot off the gas a little they went on to an unlikely victory. What happened yesterday was very different. Northampton fully knew Leinster were going to come out fighting in the second half and cannot be accused of taking their eye off the ball - they simply couldn't contain a rampant Leinster side in the second half. Leinster, rather than having no pressure, had immense pressure to perform in the second half, to live up to their favourites tag and to reproduce the type of rugby they've been playing all season. I don't know why they were so poor in the first half - nerves are unlikely, complacency would be very disappointing in a final and they certainly were no more tired than Northampton.

    It's interesting to hear about the technical analysis of the scrum at half time - it's good to see we're past the days of just throwing tea cups to get people motivated. Because I genuinely think that was the difference - the first scrum in the second half when Leinster pushed Northampton off the ball - a feat that seemed impossible after the first half - changed everything. You could see Northampton players begin to crumble, while Leinster began playing like men possessed and then it became a self fulfilling prophecy - the better Leinster got, the more Northampton crumbled. They talk about a single event changing matches and for me it was the first couple of second half scrums which for both sides and both sets of supporters threw the game on its head.

    What a match! Why didn't I go?

  • Comment number 5.

    Bryn, I enjoyed this collection of quotations from a game I could not get to see, even on telly; attending a wedding yesterday and rugby is not widely shown here in Poland.

    As good as this was, your report of the actual game was littered with factual errors and contradictions, which were so obvious I had to re-read the text several times and check it against the score summary to make sure last night's intake of vodka hadn't been more than I remembered. - hope you can re-write it for those who click the link later!

    "The fly-half (Sexton) saw his conversion (1st try) bounce back off an upright but with their tails up, Leinster's threat was all-consuming." - score summary says he converted all 3?

    "After 53 minutes, Sexton battered his way over after another blue onslaught, converting his own try to bring Leinster within a point." - 15 pts from 2 tries, even if both were converted this is impossible?

    "When Sexton sent it (a penalty) flying between the uprights, the 2009 champions had transformed a 16-point deficit into a one-point lead within 17 minutes." - correct, but from within a point to a 1pt lead from a 3 pt penalty is contradiction within 2 sentences of each other?

    "Shane Geraghty, was promptly engulfed by four tacklers and had no option but to concede a penalty. To general astonishment, Sexton missed his first kick of the evening." - correct, but not if he missed that 1st conversion, so more contradiction.

    Even the shortest of peer reviews should have spotted these - very shoddy journalism; or were you even more shell-shocked in the second half than Northampton?

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    All credit to Saints for an awesome first half but Leinster were out of this world in the second. Belief is crucial to top teams in any sport and Leinster have that in abundance, Saints will believe in themselves more after yesterday and will be even more of a major force over the the next couple of years. J Sexton for sure will be a Lion in 2013 more than likely a Test Lion along side JH, SO'B. Great form going into the W Cup. Come on Ireland!

  • Comment number 8.

    I am not here to defend journalists and I am in no way related to Byrn. Ramilas has misquoted Bryn's article and got a bit confused. The first conversion bounced over off an upright and not ''back'' as quoted by ramilas, the rest of the article then makes sense. Shoddy journalism indeed.

    What a match.

  • Comment number 9.

    #5 Ramilas1 - Please just accept that it was an amazing game of Rugby and stop criticising the article on its factual errors. Yes these should not be present within an article that has been published, but it does not detract from the poignance of the article to convey the emotion, drama and tension felt.

    Well written Bryn (and thats coming from a Northampton born and bred). Hope you laugh as much at the nit-picking comments as me.

  • Comment number 10.

    This Leinster victory will live long in the memory and every plaudit for the team will cut like a knife for Northampton. Finals are for winners and it is they who grab the silverware, but you would have to have a heart like a stone not to feel for Northampton.

  • Comment number 11.

    "Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder blames fatigue for his side's dramatic defeat to Leinster in the final of the Heineken Cup on Saturday."

    Before the game he said they weren't tired. Either they were or they weren't, Jim. Certainly watching the Leicester game last week and seeing a number of Saints players going down with cramp towards the end of that gaem, one did wonder about their fitness...

    As for Mallinder's suggestion that Leinster had had an easy game against Ulster, and were able to "rest" their star players ... did he watch that game? The only "star" player Leinster had rested for the Magners semi was Shaggy. The rest of the team that played last week was that which wold be seen as Leinster's strongest team. A number of players DID copme off, but not because the job against Ulster had been dojne, but because they had received knocks including Strauss and BOD.

    I really don't think EITHER team had an easy semi-final last week. But, I do agree with Mallinder that the Saints players were tired, but not because of last week. It might be the size of their squad, it might be becasue they don't rotate players enough, it might be becasue they are simply not fit enough. I don't know, but when the momentum is against you as happened with Saints yesterday, normal fitness levels go out the window and you LOOK like a tired team, even if you are not. With their scrum neutralised, Saints lost their platform. Players were falling off tackles, knocking on balls and generally losing the plot.

    It was a superb game, so glad I went ...

  • Comment number 12.

    Re No 4) lawros_moustache - Agree that Liverpool's comeback against AC Milan was a different ball game to yesterday's - it was only that Sexton apparently used that example when talking at half-time in the dressing room that you've heard it mentioned a lot. As you say, the turnaround in the scrum was crucial to the outcome, and interesting to hear Cullen talking about what an important 'psychological tool' it is. You certainly felt there must have been something going on for Saints to push back the Leinster pack with seven men.

    RE: No 5) Ramilas1. Many thanks for pointing out those errors in the match report, and apologies if it made it difficult to follow the pattern of scoring as a result. The problems that getting one word wrong leads to eh? That first paragraph you mention should have read 'The fly-half saw his conversion bounce OVER (rather than 'back') off an upright'. And as you rightly say, when Sexton converted his second try, it actually brought Leinster back to within TWO points, not one. (13-22 to 20-22). I think the other things you mention would have made sense after that if those were correct. All I can say is that once the Leinster second-half blitz started, it was difficult to keep up! Sure Northampton would vouch for that.

    Re: No 7) macker283gr - Occurred to me that a lot of the Leinster and Saints players could be Lions team-mates in 2013 - BoD (if the great man's still going by then), Kearney (didn't play yesterday, but a class act), Sexton, Healy, O'Brien, Heaslip from Leinster; Foden, Ashton, Hartley, Lawes and Wood from Saints).

  • Comment number 13.

    Great comeback for Leinster in Cardiff, and they fully deserved their victory on the day - congratulations to them. Munster fans certainly can no longer accuse them of lacking 'bottle' or resolve. Just a thought - maybe sometime in the future 'Leinster' could be split up into two teams predominately based on the Irish players' birthplace/where they grew up - whether of Dublin (Leo Cullen, Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll etc.) or rest of Leinster (Jamie Heaslip (Kildare), Gordon D'Arcy (Wexford), Sean O'Brien (Carlow) etc.) since they are so strong now? Northampton were playing more than half of the Irish team yesterday (who easily beat England 24-8!) Could Ireland not accommodate 5 professional sides to make things more even within Ireland? When Dublin has almost three times the population of Connacht, and then they also get the rest of Leinster to pick from as well, it does seem the Irish provincial rugby pie was divided rather unevenly!

  • Comment number 14.

    I was there! My God was I there. It was the most amazing game I have ever seen and the come-back was stuff of dreams. Sexton has certainly come of age, if he had not already in the last Ireland Vs England international, not only as a leader on the pitch but his half time talk played a large part in the comeback. Northampton were by far the best team in the 1st half but simply had no answer for the way Leinster outplayed them in the 2nd half.

    Even at half time I believed we were still in the game, purely because of players like BOD, O'Brien, Heaslip, & Sexton who believe they are winners. Yesterday they proved it.

    Breathtaking - no other way to describe it.

  • Comment number 15.

    I was there and I will never ever forget that second half. It was the greatest comeback since Lazerus. A publican from Dublin sitting behind me put £500 on Leinster at half time at odds of 9-2, now that is what I call commitment to your team. Atmosphere in Cardiff last night was incredible, Leinster fans were immense and the Saints fans took the defeat with good grace. My favourite moment of the night was listening to a group of lads do a perfect rendention of the Automatic hit -what's that coming over the hill is it a Munster, no oh!!!

  • Comment number 16.

    I think the moment Sean O'Brien ran through with 4 or 5 saints hanging off him will live long in my memory!

    Oh, and Richardt Strauss will be qualified to play for Ireland later on this year... (at least, I'm 90% sure its later this year, if not, it'll be 2012).

    Can't wait!

  • Comment number 17.

    The head injury to Dylan Hartley[?] just before and his replacement early in the second half must have affected the Saints. He is such a talisman and agent provocateur. Great game everything a neutral Welshman [yes there is such a thing] could want. I know cos I was there ... where's Max, there must be a song in it!

  • Comment number 18.

    re comment 16 - I think you've hit the nail on the head this was the key to Leinster resurgence, the scrummaging superiority somehow conjured up by Leinster in the first minutes of the 2nd half was translated into real go forward ball by O'Brien and to a lesser extent Heaslip. Not sure what they gave SOB at half time but he put in a performance the equal of any open side in Euro Cup history, knocking the stuffing out of the Northampton pack.

  • Comment number 19.

    I was there and I will never forget it. Slumped in my seat at half-time wondering what had hit us. Northampton were frightening and we were making so many mistakes. Turned to my left to speak to my fellow Leinster fan and the two words "no intensity" came back. Well maximum intensity was the response for the next 27 mins. Thank you both teams for an amazing game and to the Leinster boys you made us cry with pride

  • Comment number 20.

    Not very generous to blame the defeat on tiredness and Leinster being able to take top players off against Ulster. The Ulster game was a bruising affair with injuries mounting & the win not secured until 72nd minute. Suffice to say the best team won as will be the case in the Premiership.

  • Comment number 21.

    Re 16: & 18: - Yes I saw that SOB break as a huge point in the game, SOB at his rampaging best, he gained 25-30 meters. My European player of the year.

  • Comment number 22.

    Was at the game, it was truly epic. Fairest result would have been a trophy for each half!
    Am a Leinster fan and just want to say the Northampton fans were great - stuck around after the final whistle for presentation, had great good natured banter with them afterwards.
    Well done and thanks for a great game!

  • Comment number 23.

    What a final! One thing that hasn't been pointed out by anyone is the effect the referee had on the game. Romain Poite was fantastic at scrum time and around the park as well. He really let the game flow and without that I don't think we would have got the final that we did. Compare and contrast with George Clancy the night before...

  • Comment number 24.

    Great win by the saints


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