Leinster clinch stunning euro triumph
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
May 20, 2011
Leinster lift the Heineken Cup for the second time in three years
© Getty Images
Leinster produced an amazing second-half comeback to beat Northampton 33-22 in an enthralling Heineken Cup Final clash at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Fly-half Jonathan Sexton orchestrated Leinster's record-breaking blitz with two tries, four penalties and three conversions as his side bounced back from a 22-6 half-time deficit to blow their English rivals away and claim Europe's top prize for the second time in three years.
Tries from flanker Phil Dowson, fullback Ben Foden and hooker Dylan Hartley had earlier put a dominant Saints side on course for their second Heineken Cup title as Leinster struggled to find any rhythm. But Northampton's ferocious opening took its toll and a 17-point burst in 15 second half minutes from a revitalised Leinster turned the tie on its head and laid the foundation for an incredible victory.
The ball saw plenty of air in a frantic opening but Northampton soon hit their stride with centre James Downey finding an early gap. There were more warning signs for Leinster at the first scrum, with a knock on from No.8 Jamie Heaslip the first of many handling errors to blight the Irish side's best efforts to gain a foothold in the contest.
Sexton also struggled to find his rhythm early on with a thumping clearance sailing dead in-goal to give Saints a valuable attacking platform that they did not waste. Winger Paul Diggin's dancing feet caused Leinster problems in their own 22 and flanker Calum Clark added a little muscle before Dowson powered through for the opening try of the game, which was converted by Myler.
Stung into action, Leinster went looking for an immediate reply but got little change out of a committed Saints side who quickly turned defence into attack with No.8 Roger Wilson leading the charge. But Leinster were up for the fight and their efficient work at the breakdown earned them a penalty that Sexon landed to put his side on the board.
Northampton refused to be swayed from their game plan and Myler attempted to keep Leinster guessing but the Irish province displayed some creativity of their own, although they lacked the precision to make it pay. But they had a bigger concerns in the shape of a rampant Saints scrum and a timely surge from a Soane Tonga'uiha inspired pack led to Myler's first penalty.
Handling errors and Northampton's work rate combined to nullify the next Leinster attack but they were not thwarted for long. Winger Shane Horgan cut the Northampton line before finding support from flanker Sean O'Brien and centre Brian O'Driscoll but the latter was cut down just short of the line by a great try-saving tackle from the impressive Foden.
Leinster attempted to crank through the gears again with flanker Kevin McLaughlin finding a hole but prop Cian Healey was hauled back as he moved up in support and, as a result, Northampton tight-head Brian Mujati was immediately sin-binned.
Northampton took the setback in their stride with their pack underlining their superiority at the next scrum before lock Courtney Lawes did his best to force an opening. The alarm bells were ringing for Leinster after another scrummaging lesson and Myler was then unlucky not to be rewarded with a try after an opportunisitic dart for the line. But the missed chance was soon forgotten as the ball was recycled and worked wide to Foden, who brushed off O'Driscoll to score in the corner.
Myler's conversion cemented his side's lead but their eagerness to extend their advantage drew a warning from referee Romain Poite following a high shot on Sexton and the Leinster No.10 got to his feet to slot his second penalty.
Saints pressure at the breakdown continued to pay off with the latest Leinster knock on setting the scene for the latest one-sided scrum contest. With Leinster at their mercy, Saints centre Jon Clarke powered towards the line before winger Chris Ashton was wrapped up in the opposite corner. But Hartley took up the challenge and burrowed over for his side's third try with a little help from Wilson and Clark. Myler's conversion hit the woodwork but the damage had been done as the sides headed to the tunnel.
A wholly different Leinster side emerged after the break and immediately set about redressing the balance. Northampton weathered the initial onslaught but back came Leinster with O'Driscoll, Heaslip and fullback Isa Nacewa stretching Saints inside their own 22. Sexton then pounced, splitting Tonga'uiha and Diggin to cross in the corner. His conversion struck the woodwork but the bounce favoured the Irish international and made it a seven-point score - the comeback was evidently on.
A knock on from Downey allowed Leinster to press for more and O'Driscoll and Heaslip were involved again before Fitzgerald created the space for D'Arcy to squeeze his way over in the corner only to be denied by some good work from Diggin - and the Television Match Official.
Leinster refused to dwell on the disappointment and instead returned to their high-tempo approach in the hope of carving another opportunity - and they did not have to wait long. A series of phases battered Saints into submission again with a smart block from Heaslip creating the opening for Sexton to grab his second try.
The turnaround was complete a minute or so later with the Leinster pack handing out a lesson of their own to a Northampton scrum that suddenly looked fragile. The result was a penalty that Sexton slotted to give his side a lead that they would not relinquish.
Northampton appeared drained and the bone-crunching tackles that had propelled them into as commanding lead were now being broken all too easily. Leinster powered forward and Northampton were forced into desperate measures to stem the tide with Dowson the next to be sent to the bin - the flanker guilty of a blatant offside infringement as Leinster closed in on the line again.
Sexton stepped up to land the penalty but they wanted more and they soon had it. Flanker Sean O'Brien, hooker Richardt Strauss and lock Leo Cullen showed great hands to spearhead the next drive and the ball was swiftly recycled to Hines, who muscled his way over for the next try.
Sexton converted to hammer home his side's advantage before Northampton introduced some fresh legs in a bid to stop the rot. The change in personnel had little impact on the breakdown where Leinster continued to rule although a rare missed kick from Sexton offered some kind of a reprieve.
A burst of speed from Foden offered further hope and he found a willing ally in Ashton but there was to be no dramatic turnaround with the Saints speedster thumped into the turf, along with his side's hopes, by a crunching tackle from Nacewa.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter
While the Super Rugby season enters the all-important knockout phase, elsewhere pre-season training never looked so enjoyable. We round-up the best snaps in our Week in Pictures
"Our scrums and lineouts are sometimes not that good but our men are very brave." Ken Borland finds that rugby is on the rise in Senegal
Laurie Fisher talks about the Brumbies and Gloucester, and provides revealing thoughts on the player involvement during the glory days in Canberra