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Heineken Cup Final
Leinster Rugby 33 - 22 Northampton Saints
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Saturday, 21 May 2011, 17:00

Despite being heavy favourites, there was still a nervous, looming fear that engulfed Leinster in the run up to Saturday's final with Northampton. Something about the favourties tag doesn't seem to suit Irish sides. Its the expectation that builds the pressure.

Leinster's run in to the final is one of the most difficult in the competitions history, the best of England, France, and Europe in general were all put away with class and precision that gave Leinster the favourites title before the knock out stages even began. Northampton, on the other hand, didn't have quite the same level of competition, facing Cardiff, Castre and Edinburgh in the pool stages. In the quarter final Ulster gave them a scare in the first half but ultimately fell to the Northampton scrum. It was the same front row that also marched Perpignan off the field in Milton Keynes in the semi final in a game where another French travelling side simply did not show up, in keeping with tradition of course. But despite being clearly admired as the team to win the competition, Leinster were still wary. Wary of the semi-illegal Northampton front three, made even more wary by the announcement of referee Roman Poite as officiator, a man who's scrutiny of proceedings at scrum time is both baffling and infuriating at times.

In the papers the day before kick off, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt made an interesting point. When asked about the form of a team running into a final he quickly brushed the comment aside, a final, he said 'is like two sets of 40 minutes'. I wonder if he knew how prophetic those words would be.

Northampton did everything they needed to do when that first 40 minute match kicked off. Side by side Leinster had more class and skill from 1-15. That was no revelation or great secret. Northampton, in order to win, had to force Leinster to play their own game, and they did, quite successfully too. The Saint's scrum decimated the Leinster pack early on, they turned the heat on the Lions and just began to run. The men in blue seemed shocked, unaware how to react and the mistakes started to come. Northampton's confidence grew and grew, as did their side of the score board, passes were connecting, rucks overturned and scrums won against the head. It seemed like a nightmare was forming for Leinster as Northampton steam rolled on through the first half, putting down three tries no less and Ben Foden had all the looks of man of the match. Had something gone horribly wrong? Roles seemed reversed as everyone in blue begged for half time.

Then something remarkable happened. The same 15, dejected Leinster players shuffling into the dressing room at half time emerged, reborn. Whether it was Sexton's inspirational words in the dressing room, referencing Liverpool's famous comeback in Istanbul, Greg Feek's tweaking of the scrum or simply Joe Schmidt's calm presence, we may never know. But something happened in there that proved the inspiration for one of the greatest sporting turn arounds in history. Leinster came back out on to the pitch with double the intensity their rivals had begun with. Johnny Sexton in particular played with a fire and drive that is rarely seen in professional sport. His performance will be remembered as one of the greatest individual displays of our age. It looked as though the God's themselves would not stop him, within twelve minutes of the second half he had put away two tries and converted both with relative ease. Soon Leinster were not only two points off the lead, but leading, in a turn around that is still hard to believe took place.

Northampton simply had no answer to the Leinster pressure. Quite like in the first half, except in the first half, things began level. In the second Leinster were staring at a 16 point deficit and had only 40 minutes to do something about it. Yet still they managed to not just play the way we all knew they could, they played better. Endless waves of clinical attacks were met with nothing from the Saints, who slowly watched their lead being chipped away. The scrum got better too, whatever Greg Feek said at half time worked wonders. Soon 'that' front row were beginning to look average as the penalties came off the back of Leinster's scrummaging, Saint's heads began to dip too and Hartley and Ashton, among others were limping about the field, Mallinder clearly desperate to keep his stars on the pitch due to their lack of a threat on the bench, a desperate, last ditch move.

When Phil Dowson deliberately came in from the size at a ruck on 60 minutes in hope that the Leinster score wouldn't continue to grow he saw yellow, Sexton kicked ahead to go 26-22. Shortly after, Healy and then O'Brien barrled towards the line hoping to add insult to injury. O'Brien was hauled down short, but Nathan Hines was in the right spot and got over the line on 66 minutes, which Sexton converted. Leinster were now in complete control, the 11 point lead with only 13 or so minutes to go gave them the ability to relax and simply play the game, as even a converted try and penalty from Northampton would not be enough. The lions kept roaring too, at the death Leinster were still pouring into the Northampton half searching for more points, and almost looked like scoring, but time ran out and instead the safety of touch was found and Leinster's legacy as a true European Rugby superpower was solidified.

Never has a comeback of this gravity been witnessed in rugby. Should it have ever been any other way though? Surely a loss to Northampton would be a disservice to the absolute quality of total rugby Leinster have played all year under Joe Schmidt, who, ironically, also staged an incredible comeback after his disastrous start as coach at the beginning of the season. Leinster proved on Saturday that, not only are they now part of the Rugby elite, but they are an almighty force of epic proportions.

by Patrick Fennelly, © 2011-08-23

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