FOR most of those watching as last Saturday’s second-half unfolded, the transformation seemed to take little more than the blink of an eye.
For Ben Foden, it was an agonising horror show that unspooled in super slow-mo.
By the time Leinster had emptied their locker of retribution, Northampton were 11 points adrift and there were just 15 minutes left on the clock and, one break down the right from Foden and Ashton aside, the underdogs had nothing left to give.
Not that they ever stopped trying.
“You’ve got to believe, haven’t you?” said Foden. “I believed until the final whistle that we could get back at them but that first 15 minutes of the second-half was probably the longest 15 minutes of my career. To go from 22-6 up to find yourself chasing the game...
“I was waiting for someone to pinch me and wake up in the changing room again. All credit to Leinster. They showed tremendous character and they are crowned European champions for a reason. They are an outstanding team and they gave an outstanding performance.”
Foden’s magnanimity was echoed by pretty much every Northampton player who shared his thoughts and, in a sense, it might just be of some consolation that they lost to a team capable of such rare ability.
The first-half was one pockmarked by Leinster errors — Jonathan Sexton kicking over the end-line, Nathan Hines dropping a routine restart, Jamie Heaslip fumbling forward in contact to name but a few — but Northampton were less error-prone after the restart. Foden did spill a bad pass after 57 minutes which eventually led to a Jonathan Sexton penalty but, that aside, it is hard to make any sort of a cogent argument for Northampton being the architects or even co-conspirators in their downfall.
“They started to get a bit of momentum,” said Foden. “Things started to go their way, a bounce of the ball, they got a bit of pressure in the scrum that was so dominant for us in the first-half. When we took it into contact we seemed to turn it over a bit more.
“We starved them of ball in the first half and did the right things when we had it. In the second half, especially that first 20 minutes, it was all them on the ball and they are a tough team to defend against. They took their opportunities when they got them and Jonny Sexton was outstanding with the boot and in general play.”
Sexton’s half-time speech has already been cemented into the historical records as the defining moment in this 16th Heineken Cup final but there were apparently signs of the drama to come in the Northampton dressing-room too.
Forwards coach Dorian West won back-to-back titles with Leicester a decade ago, the first of them against Stade Francais at Parc des Princes when the Tigers came from 21-14 down to pull through despite the sin-binning of Martin Johnson.
So, when West looked around the Saints locker room at the interval on Saturday he saw a team struggling to stay on its feet rather than one 16 points to the good and 40 minutes away from a European title.
“We put everything we had into that first-half and playing with 14 men for a spell didn’t so us any favours,” he said. “I just got that feeling that we were a little bit jaded at half-time. Looking at some of the faces, they had just put everything in.”
Coming seven days after their attritional loss to Leicester in the semi-final of the Aviva Premiership and at the end of a long season the theory was floated that this had been a game too far. “A half a game, maybe,” said West with a weary smile.
Maybe so, but it was a train of thought that failed to account for Leinster’s own demolition derby against Ulster last Friday week and, anyway, it didn’t chime with his players. Dublin-born James Downey dismissed it as a factor. So too, did out-half Steve Myler.
“No, we were feeling good,” said the out-half. “We were only 40 minutes into an 80-minute game. There was a long way still to go, which it proved, but it is just disappointing that certain things we did really well in the first half we couldn’t achieve in the second. It wasn’t all our own fault, it was down to good play from Leinster as well.”
Myler had a different focus in the scramble for perspective. Three years ago, he and a fair few more of these Northampton players were wrapping up their stint in England’s second tier against a side that will play on the fourth rung of the domestic ladder next season.
“This squad has only been together for three or four years now and it has been a hell of a journey going away to places like Esher and Cornish Pirates to where we are now,” said Myler. “It speaks volumes that we are so disappointed not to be European champions.”
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