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Huw Richards
Huw Richards | Columnist Index
Huw Richards is qualified to play for either Wales or England and was only prevented from doing so by being slow, short-sighted, averse to pain and lacking in any compensating talent. Denied sporting success he became a journalist and, after contributing to the demise of several short-lived rugby magazines, was the FT's rugby writer between 1995 and 2009 and currently writes for the International Herald Tribune and the Sunday Herald.
Heineken Cup
Leinster finally have their day in the sun
Huw Richards at Murrayfield
May 23, 2009
Brian O'Driscoll is embraced by Leinster fans at Murrayfield, Leicester v Leinster, Heineken Cup Final, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, May 23, 2009
Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll is embraced by fans following his side's historic Heineken Cup victory © Getty Images
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If there was any doubt before, there is none now. Leinster's Heineken Cup triumph, following on Munster's Magners title and Ireland's Grand Slam, confirms the 2008-09 European season as the Year of the Irish.

They are the third Irish province to lift the Heineken. And while this triumph lacked the sheer joyous improbability of Ulster's victory in 1999 or the sense of a long and arduous pursuit at last requited when Munster finally won, it was no less deserved than either of those.

It was a victory in keeping with the entire Leinster campaign. In the past they've been wont to come hurtling out of the stalls in the autumn, looking certain contenders, only to fall short when it really mattered. No team has won more Heineken matches for less ultimate reward, until now.

This was a triumph for substance rather than style. It was a quality shown in their quarter-final at the Stoop, where they stood firm against Harlequins almost incessant attacking to prevail by a single point. The semi-final against Munster exorcised any number of ghosts, but there were still doubts over the ability to beat the most pragmatic, streetwise and battle-hardened of opponents, a Leicester team playing their fifth Heineken final, on the big stage.

And if it is one thing to beat Leicester in a final, it is still more impressive to beat them in a close match. Let the Tigers within a score in the final few minutes, and there's a good chance you will finish empty-handed.

Not the least impressive aspect of their win was the way they held Leicester at bay in those final few minutes, allowing them not a sniff of the drop-goal or penalty that could have taken them into extra-time.

But then Leinster were the better team - never resoundingly, but evidently superior - for the bulk of the 80 minutes. It was only in the 10 minutes that followed Stan Wright's 32nd sin-binning that the Tigers had a clear edge, one that they characteristically parlayed into 13 points.

 
"Their spirit was epitomised by the chap I spotted in Rose Street with 'Leinster for a day, Munster for a lifetime' on the back of his jacket."
 

A less resilient team - one of Leinster's starry but brittle XVs of the past, perhaps - might have folded. Leinster picked themselves up and battled back into contention, contriving the well-worked try by James Heaslip that shifted the balance their way again.

Their victory breaks the Heineken magic circle formed by Leicester, Munster, Wasps and Toulouse who between them had won the last nine finals, each winning at least twice.

The rampaging Rocky Elsom was a deserving man of the match - and recipient of one of the unlikelier rebukes heard this season when Nigel Owens told him 'mind your language, there are children watching' - but far from the only outstanding performer.

Had Leicester won, it would have been hard to deny the award to centre Dan Hipkiss, who showed exactly why he has been recalled by England - and also raised the question why, injury apart, he has been so long out of favour.

OK, so he hasn't got a kicking game and he isn't blazingly quick. What he is, though, is a forceful runner whose power and ability to run a good line mean he constantly threatens a break.

Still more unsung is Leinster outside-half Jonathan Sexton, who wouldn't have been playing if Felipe Contepomi hadn't been injured during the semi-final. But he confirmed the immensely favourable impression made then, kicking the angles astutely to ensure that Leinster's control of the line-out - the decisive set-piece phase - was turned into position and pressure and landing a monstrously impressive drop-goal.

If he was watching from the Lions hotel, Ronan O'Gara will know that he has the serious rival he has been lacking since David Humphreys retired.

Leinster were the winners off the pitch as well, their fans hugely predominant in the bars of Edinburgh. Their hordes were supplemented by hundreds of compatriots wearing the red of Munster, who travelled to take up tickets purchased in advance of the semi-finals, their spirit epitomised by the chap I spotted in Rose Street with 'Leinster for a day, Munster for a lifetime' on the back of his jacket.

The Heineken is not quite yet the gathering of the clans that rugby league makes of its finals, but the shirts of Ulster, Harlequins, Scarlets and, a little less likely, Worcester, were visible in the streets of Edinburgh. One had to wonder whether, for instance, fans of other Welsh regions would have turned out so readily to back Cardiff, but the man from Munster had it dead right. This was indeed Leinster's day.

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