In the presence of greatness
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
May 19, 2012
Brian O'Driscoll put in another memorable performance for Leinster © PA Photos
The debate can end here and now. This Leinster side is the best European team of all time.
A classy dismantling of their provincial rivals Ulster in front of a record final crowd at Twickenham propelled the Irish province into the realms of greatness. Leicester may have also notched back-to-back Heineken Cup crowns a decade ago and Toulouse may be able to boast four victories in Europe's showpiece event, but three titles in four years ensures this crop of obscenely-talented players now stand head and shoulders above even those success-laden sides.
Not content with just winning, Joe Schmidt's men did it in style securing the biggest ever winning margin in a final (28 points), the most points ever scored in a final (42) and in doing so notched the greatest number of tries seen in the title-decider (5). They refused to venture away from the multi-dimensional rugby that has served them so well in the past and the result was a thrilling spectacle and yet another glorious chapter in the history of arguably the greatest club competition in the world.
Just a few hours after the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup finale went off like a rain-sodden firework just over the road at the Twickenham Stoop, the Heineken Cup showpiece served up a thrilling spectacle that was also a superb advert for this competition and the European club game in general.
A great game requires two teams prepared to play and that is what we got with Ulster more than holding their own for much of the contest. The willingness of both sides to play with ball in hand was so refreshing and remarkable considering the occasion and what was at stake. If the ball did spend any time in the air in general play it was so brief as to not register with those lucky enough to witness the game. And the players could be excused for opting for a breather given the lung-busting effort shown by both sides throughout.
The fitness levels were outstanding but only Leinster could sustain that super-human effort and they didn't even need one of the telephone boxes perched next to the pitch as part of the strange pre-match entertainment to get changed in before 'saving the day'. A game that began as a 'clash of the titans' was reduced to a contest between men and boys once Ulster's resolve had been broken.
Leinster were superior in every facet of the game, from tactics to execution, and their big match experience proved pivotal against an Ulster side that must now remain in the shadow of their 1999 predecessors who went one better than they could today.
Ulster possessed some talent-heavy personnel in their ranks with the industrious John Afoa eating up ground and carries and Ruan Pienaar doing his best to keep his side's quest for glory on track, but they were largely shackled by a relentless Leinster outfit whose big names laid trump card after trump card.
Brian O'Driscoll cemented his own status as one of the greatest to have ever played the game with another sublime display. It is amazing to think the Leinster talisman only had surgery on a knee injury just over a week ago and yet can still deliver the kind of performance that he served up to the masses at English rugby's HQ. A career highlight reel, that must surely now rank alongside Gone with the Wind in terms of running time, will now feature the awe-inspiring offload that laid the foundation for his side's crucial second try. Sonny who?
We've said it before but will continue to say it in the hope that European rugby chiefs are listening - the Man of the Match honour given in their showpiece event needs to adopt his name when, sadly, his career finally comes to an end. The fact that that eventuality is not too far away now means we must relish these moments. His premature exit from the game in the second half was a shame - but you somehow knew that he would return to revel in his side's glory - and he did. More immediately, you suspect fly-half Jonathan Sexton has done enough to lay claim to the ERC Player of the Year award having bagged a 15-point haul on what appears his own path to greatness.
Brian O'Driscoll's offload was a moment of sheer brilliance © Getty Images
And while on the subject of greatness, step forward grizzled Kiwi lock Brad Thorn. Today's result sees him add Heineken Cup glory to his Rugby World Cup and Super Rugby titles - and let's not forget his glittering league career.
The ability of O'Driscoll to conjure such magic underlined the clear difference between the sides. As talented as Ulster's side and gifted the likes of Pienaar and flanker Stephen Ferris, they do not possess the individual brilliance that O'Driscoll, and to a lesser extent Sexton, has in abundance. This was painfully obvious as young Ulster playmaker Paddy Jackson failed to stand toe-to-toe with his side's illustrious rivals - missing an overlap with the game still in the balance and shanking a drop goal attempt as Ulster looked to wrestle their way back into the game. But he will learn from the experience and so will Ulster who are no longer the poor relations of Irish rugby and their days as spectators at this end of the season are surely over.
In a season often dominated by the Irish Rugby Football Union's attempts to restrict the impact of overseas players within the provincial set-up, it must be heart-warming for them to see the likes of O'Driscoll, man of the match Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy taking such central roles.
Irish rugby was always going to be the winner no matter the result given the line-up but we could only hope that the occasion would prove as rewarding for the rest of us - and thankfully it did.
A debate may soon rage about the structure of the competition and the qualification process but we can only hope that sport's powerbrokers do not jeopardise the undoubted jewel they have in their possession.
Tickets for next year's showpiece go on sale on Monday and you sense the marketing team will not need to work too hard to fill Dublin's Aviva Stadium.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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