The fairytale farewell sparks rhapsody in blue

Ulster 18 Leinster 24
When it was all over, Ulster bettered after 80 minutes of physical rugby and the ceremonies and public farewells completed, Leinster retired to the privacy of their dressing room and the emotions flowed.

Laughter and raucousness spilled from the ‘home’ quarters but it was only when the brotherhood was sundered and Jonathan Sexton emerged to face the media that the quieter, more telling moments were shared.

Sexton is one of eight players moving on this summer and Joe Schmidt will be moving in to new offices down the road with the IRFU. All eight addressed the squad to impart a few words before they split up for one last, definitive time.

“It was tough to talk to the group,” said Sexton.

“I think they know how I feel about the whole thing. I said I never thought it was going to happen like this. This team has been everything to me for the last seven years, maybe too much at times. Some of them are probably glad to see the back of me.

“They’ll be quieter training sessions next year. You know, it’s tough to talk about because I’ve got a great adventure ahead of me and I’m going to give it all for my new team. I don’t want to insult them but I also want to let everyone know what Leinster meant to me for the last few years so it is very hard to put into words.”

A steely yet personable character, Sexton stopped to catch his breath at one point in an effort to maintain composure, but his words were pitch-perfect as he prepares for that Lions tour and life after when he begins a two-year contract with Racing Metro 92.

The consensus is he’ll come home thereafter, that Leinster will welcome him with open arms, yet life has a habit of changing the goalposts as we line up our kicks. Even someone so central to the province’s most illustrious period knows he may have played his last game in royal blue.

“It’s a two-way process,” he reasoned. “The good thing about Leinster over the last few years is we have replaced everyone that’s left. Rocky Elsom left, Kevin McLaughlin and Seán O’Brien came in. Brad Thorn left, Devin Toner has come in and filled his boots.

“I’m sure guys will come in and fill the spot I’ve had for the last few years. It’s a two-way thing, they’ll have to want me back. Maybe I’ll be back some day, maybe not. Maybe Leinster will go on ahead and win another couple of Heineken Cups and a couple of Rabos, you just don’t know.”

Whatever happens next, it is difficult to imagine an evening as perfectly scripted as that two days ago when blue skies gilded an RDS draped in the colour of two Irish provinces and Leinster sent Schmidt, Sexton, Isa Nacewa et al off in style. In victory, they completed the double of Amlin Challenge Cup and PRO12, atoned for three previous Grand final losses and added to the pair of Heineken Cup titles which Schmidt delivered on the back of Michael Cheika’s first for the province.

Not a bad evening’s work.

Ulster made known their displeasure with aspects of ref John Lacey’s performance, which was erratic, yet Leinster won chiefly because they scored two tries and conceded none and because they have patented the nous to sneak over the line in tight affairs.

The manner in which they broke from the traps early on through Shane Jennings’ touchdown and thwarted Ulster’s third quarter comeback with Jamie Heaslip’s was a lesson to an Ulster team yet to crack the code at the highest level and an insight into the influence Schmidt has had in his three years in charge. His is a record that may never be bettered at provincial level.

“To get to six finals in three years under one coach, I suppose it tells a lot about Joe and it tells a lot about the lads that he has coached. A very special group to be a part of for the last six, seven years. A period that I will always remember.”

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: M Allen for Olding (65); I Henderson for Diack (65); C Black for Court (73).

Leinster: I Nacewa; F McFadden, B O’Driscoll, I Madigan, A Conway; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: Q Roux for Toner (73); J Hagan for Ross (75); J McGrath for Healy (77).

Referee: John Lacey (IRFU).


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