Awesome Leinster leave Saints shell-shocked
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.
Brian 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.