A memorable day for Irish rugby

JAMIE HEASLIP sauntered down the steps at the Millennium Stadium, busily stuffing a sandwich into his mouth with one hand while the Heineken Cup was being carried nonchalantly in the other.

The scene barely did justice to the titanic effort he and his Leinster team-mates had put in to turning this dramatic final on its head, delivering the province a second European title in three seasons in the process. And yet it said so much about the extraordinarily high levels this group of players has reached under new head coach Joe Schmidt this season.

Leinster had refused to be denied and success, in their minds, was as inevitable as that sandwich being demolished by the ravenous No. 8.

Never mind the 16-point deficit they found themselves with at half-time. Leinster went out and scored 27 unanswered points, easily eclipsing Bath’s previous record second-half fight-back from a nine-point deficit to beat Brive 19-18 in 1997 and racking up more points by one team than in any half of the 16 Heineken Cup finals.

Let’s forget the first-half surrender at scrum-time where Northampton’s mighty pack ruled the roost over Leinster to devastating effect. Scrum coach Greg Feek did his homework, checked the video and implemented a new game plan for his forwards to nullify the threat.

And never mind the 80-minute performance Ireland coach Declan Kidney has been seeking from his sides all this season as he prepares for his players for the World Cup campaign of their lives this autumn.

Leinster did all they had to in the 17 minutes after the break to strike back at Northampton with two converted tries and a penalty, all scored by Jonny Sexton, and break Saints’ hearts before Nathan Hines levelled up the try count and sealed a famous Irish win.

“It had little to do with me. It had to do with a lot of resolve from some players who showed a heck of a lot of character.

“I think Greg Feek tipped the scales. He got the forwards together and ironed out the scrum. The scrum was coming up in the first half. We knew that they attack and they come up in the scrum and we had to lock them down. I think we locked them down really well in the second-half.

“And then apart from that it was just a case of holding the ball. I spoke about that, Jonny spoke about that and I think when we did hold the ball, even in the first-half, to be honest we made some pretty good breaks but we kept giving the ball back or making an error and they’d inevitably get a scrum and clear their lines with it.”

Yes, that Jonny Sexton address. With Feek having done his job, the fly-half laid it on the line for his team-mates and turned them back into the winners they had forgotten they had become.

“We talked about belief before the game,” Schmidt said. “We talked about believing in ourselves and each other and so I reiterated I still believed we could do it. Jonny was quick to reiterate that as well and there was kind of a big following of that.

“However, I knew we would have to score first after half-time and that was pivotal. And once that happened I sensed a momentum shift, I think the players sensed a momentum shift and certainly the crowd did.

Pity poor Northampton. They had been exhilarating in that first-half – awesome at scrum time, lionhearted in defence and dynamic with ball in hand as they ran three tries past a Leinster side in disarray.

And all for nought as Leinster finally showed up at exactly the same time the Saints’ arduous season finally, terminally, caught up with them. A thin squad, restricted in numbers by the salary cap in force in the English Premiership, had denied director of rugby Jim Mallinder the luxury of rotating his selections and resting his star players in the manner Schmidt was able to do this season and meant he had to throw the kitchen sink at two intensely physical matches with just a seven-day turnaround, one less than Leinster had enjoyed.

Against Leicester at Welford Road the week before in the Aviva Premiership semi-final defeat to their East Midlands rivals, the Saints’ tackle count had reached into three figures. Having faced the Tigers in the quarter-finals, Leinster knew exactly what that was like and they unleashed a similar onslaught after the half-time break in Cardiff that left Northampton’s player out on their feet and out of the game with the Irish fans joyfully latching onto the change in direction the game had taken.

“We spoke before the game about how they had been involved in a really tough game last weekend at Welford Road and playing an 80-minute game like that that’s so physical against Leicester,” Sexton said.

“We spoke about how wrecked we were when we got back from the Leicester match and we said that we think they’ll tire.

“Even in the first-half we felt they were maybe tiring a little bit. After the scrums, even when they were pushing us back they were down after it. Maybe there were carrying a few knocks and we spoke about if we could get the next score that maybe they would begin to doubt themselves and it was just momentum that swung our way.”

Few will have witnessed such an unusual and pulsating a match that produced six tries, the most scored in a Heineken Cup final, and no-one outside of Leinster will be more delighted than in Connacht, where Eric Elwood’s team were the beneficiaries of a victory that led to the westerners being awarded the 24th qualifying spot for next season’s Heineken Cup.

It really was a great day for Irish rugby as, you sensed, the Leinster players always knew it would.

LEINSTER: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy (F McFadden, 68), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan, 78), E Reddan (I Boss, 74); C Healy (H Van Der Merwe, 60), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright, 79), M Ross (S Wright, 78); L Cullen (capt), N Hines (D Toner, 78); K McLaughlin (S Jennings, 40), S O’Brien (K McLaughlin 44-47 — blood), J Heaslip.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: B Foden; C Ashton (S Commins, 78), J Clarke (J Ansbro, 67), J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler (S Geraghty, 67) , L Dickson; S Tonga’uiha (A Waller, 67), D Hartley, capt (B Sharman, 69), B Mujati (T Mercey, 67); C Lawes, C Day (M Sorenson, 78); C Clark (T Mercey, 26-36), P Dowson, R Wilson (M Easter, 64-68 — blood) .

Yellow cards: Mujati 25-35; Dowson 60-70

Referee: Romain Poite (France).


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