Leinster desire carries them to glory
May 23, 2009
Leinster stalwart Brian O'Driscoll beams following his side's Heineken Cup triumph © Getty Images
The smile on Brian O'Driscoll's face following Leinster's battling Heineken Cup victory over Leicester said it all. They had finally fulfilled their promise and captured European rugby's biggest prize.
Ten years in the making for many of the pivotal players, Leinster's success saw them emerge from the shadow of their provincial rivals Munster and write their own memorable page in the Heineken Cup history books. So often the nearly-men of European rugby, Leinster can now lay claim to a place amongst Europe's elite and will command the respect such a position deserves.
It may not have been a classic final - these occasions rarely are - but that did not matter to the sea of blue supporters that dominated the capacity crowd - many of whom, unable to find a hotel room, had set up camp at the famous Raeburn Place ground in the city.
Big matches call for big performances and flanker Rocky Elsom delivered. He has lit up the Magners League and Heineken Cup since his arrival in Europe last year and he rose to the occasion with a series of barn-storming runs into the heart of Leicester's title challenge. No wonder the Australian Rugby Union are keen to bring Elsom back under their charge - but in this kind of form anyone wanting to secure his services is going to have to dig deep.
The assured performance of 23-year-old fly-half Jonny Sexton was equally impressive and perhaps more praise-worthy. He stepped into the breach during the semi-final victory over Munster following an injury to Felipe Contepomi but question marks remained as to whether he could handle the pressure of this bigger stage.
Such doubts were unfounded as he showed no big match nerves. The rising star, regarded as an heir apparent to Ireland No.10 Ronan O'Gara, produced a mature performance that defied his years. He pulled the strings as Leinster dominated the opening period and provided the game with its stand-out moment - a majestic drop goal from the half-way line that will surely ignite the dreams of a new generation of players across the Emerald Isle.
O'Driscoll has always been at the heart of Leinster's European campaign and although shackled for much of the game, his industry, alongside that of centre partner Gordon D'Arcy, was there to be seen. And not even a shoulder injury, one that he has kept under wraps of late, could deprive him of this moment. Treatment could wait - as could the forthcoming Lions tour. There was no way he was going to bow out with his side so close.
Defeat is never easy to take and even the memory of their Guinness Premiership triumph last weekend will do little to mask the disappointment of their second Heineken Cup Final reverse in three years. A worrying record of only three victories in their last nine finals is reason for concern.
Who knows if the result and the Tigers' performance would have been different had they not edged out London Irish last weekend? What we do know is that game took its toll physically and perhaps mentally too.
Leinster may have not been a match for the Tigers in terms of attacking endeavour or the scrum but such dominance will only get you so far. In the end it was the rookie finalists' superior desire that got them over the line - they were not to be denied.
The match was always going to struggle to live up to the standards of the breathtaking semi-finals but as a spectacle it remains a fitting climax to the European season. Leinster's triumph, following Ireland's Six Nations Grand Slam and Munster's Magners League success, sets the seal on an historic season for Irish rugby - but perhaps there is one more chapter yet to be written in South Africa this summer.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September