A game of two halves - and then some
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
May 21, 2011
Leinster fly-half Jonny Sexton celebrates with the Heineken Cup silverware © Getty Images
Leinster and Northampton combined to write another famous chapter in the history of the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday - and perhaps the most glorious yet.
Europe's premier club competition rarely fails to deliver in terms of drama and excitement, although the tournament finale is not always the showpiece it is hoped - until today that is. In a simply extraordinary contest we witnessed both the greatest comeback and the most dramatic capitulation in the competition's rich 16-year history. A game of two halves, the well-worn cliché does not do the game justice - such was the violent swing in the fortunes of both sides during this rollercoaster of a final.
Few had backed Northampton to overcome their Irish rivals but those supposedly well-informed predictions looked a little silly as the Saints powered into a commanding lead. Northampton's pack fronted up in impressive style to make an experienced Leinster scrum look out of its depth. But the ferocity did not stop there with Northampton's work at the breakdown helping to knock Leinster out of their stride.
Loose-head Soane Tonga'uiha was the tormentor-in-chief at the scrum while fullback Ben Foden dazzled at both ends of the field. As a result, the Premiership side were 16 points to the good at the break, a class apart and the sizeable Heineken Cup silverware was clearly on its way back to the East Midlands - or perhaps not.
Leinster are not the best side in Europe by chance and they took another giant step towards greatness with a breathtaking turnaround that still beggars belief. Blown away by their rivals in the first half they raised their game in all departments to alter the destiny of this season's title in emphatic fashion.
Fly-half Jonathan Sexton, who had struggled to impose himself in the face of a fired up Saints in the first half, simply said enough is enough and went about orchestrating his own side's resurgence and Northampton's dramatic downfall. His 28-point haul may have been two short of the record - Stade Francais' Diego Dominguez bagged 30 points in his side's 2001 final defeat to Leicester - but there has never been a more telling contribution to a Heineken Cup finale.
Centre Brian O'Driscoll had looked a shadow of his best in the opening exchanges and was schooled by Foden in defence and attack in two telling moments of the first half. Perhaps he had not quite emerged from the injury cloud that had put his participation in doubt? Those doubts were soon cast aside as he followed his fly-half's lead and set about changing the course of the game. No.8 Jamie Heaslip was another who was largely anonymous under Northampton's first half onslaught but it took just a few minutes of the second half for his usual towering persona to reappear.
Northampton's hopes rested largely on their ability to subdue their rivals' key weapons and do so for 80 minutes. It was not long before it was clear they were now failing on both fronts. Fatigue cruelly tore away at their resilience. Where there was not even a hint of mortality or the smallest of openings in the first half there was suddenly alarming fragility and gaping holes. The high tempo that had caused Leinster so much trouble was nowhere to be seen and suddenly they were chasing the game - and it would be a fruitless task.
The bruising nature of their Aviva Premiership semi-final defeat to Leicester last weekend appeared to be hanging heavy on their limbs. They could see what was happening but simply did not have enough in the tank to stop the game slipping out of their grasp. Having shown Leinster a thing or two in the first half they were handed a much harsher lesson by their more experienced rivals after the break.
Are the demands of the season to blame? Or is it the lack of depth in the squad? A debate for another day perhaps. They will learn from this painful experience but fresh from their Premiership defeat, this result illustrates they have a little way to go before they can live with Europe's finest.
In contrast, Leinster grew stronger as the game wore on with their international stars coming to the fore as the game demanded they do. That quality currently stands them apart on the European stage and they will no doubt kick on again next weekend when they tackle Munster in the Magners League Grand Final where they will go in search of an unprecedented double.
With that Thomond Park showdown looming, there will be little chance for Leinster to celebrate this victory but Connacht will no doubt have a drink on their behalf having secured Heineken Cup qualification for the first time as a result of their Irish rivals' success.
For Northampton, no amount of partying will erase the memory of a game that they appeared to have won only to agonisingly lose. However, the rest of us will delight in remembering this game for many years to come.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
"I think in a couple of seasons London Irish can be a genuine force and contenders for the Premiership." Tom Hamilton talks to Brian Smith
"I hate this talk of survival, we are going there to compete." Tom Hamilton talks to London Welsh's Justin Burnell and Matt Corker
The latest Week in Pictures takes in Madagascar, Nick Cummins and all the latest photographs from Super Rugby
Tom Hamilton looks at the implications of Ulster's state of upheaval on the Ireland team