Leinster’s spirit and skill swept them to glory
Travelling back from Cardiff on Sunday, I was struck by the reading material being devoured on the seat beside me. A young man was immersed in a book on Probability Theory.
It made me smile — on the morning after the night before, it was a most improbable choice, and secondly I wondered what the odds had been at half-time on Leinster making a comeback to win the game.
While you knew that Joe Schmidt’s men would mount a rearguard action a 16-point lead seemed, at that point, to be virtually unassailable, or would at least test any existing laws of probability.
It required something special and that is exactly what we got.
A group of enormously talented players who drew every ounce of character out of themselves and both battered and played their way out of trouble. It was nothing short of extraordinary.
The sixteenth European Cup final has to rank as the best yet, such was the quality and drama of action at the Millennium Stadium.
There may not have been a last minute kick to decide the outcome, but even better than that, we simply witnessed two stunning halves of rugby.
Northampton Saints produced an almost flawless opening 40 minutes, and Leinster were forced to dig deeper than at any stage in their history to produce a remarkable comeback.
Invariably, you can pinpoint key moments and turning-points in a game — a dropped ball, a missed tackle, a refereeing decision, but on this occasion the biggest factor was half-time. The Leinster players must have been craving to get inside, such was the torrential flood of pressure and points that the Saints produced.
Northampton were running on adrenalin and would happily have postponed half-time for a lot longer.
It stopped them in their tracks and gave Leinster an opportunity to get out of the whirlwind, address the scrum problems and plot the next 10 minutes.
They knew they had to hit back quickly, but even they will have been surprised at how quickly they scaled a lead that must have felt like a mountain.
Northampton had held nothing back and put in a monumental effort.
However, it is like pedaling a bicycle as fast as you can up a steep hill, getting within sight of the top, but slowing to a halt.
Before you know it, you have used up so much energy that as soon as you stop, you hurtle backwards and crash in a heap at the bottom. The adrenalin drained from the players’ systems in the changing-room with the legs heavier and lungs bursting.
If you needed further proof of how important the front five are to a team’s performance you had it in glorious technicolour. In the first half, Roger Wilson was on fire, Lee Dickson controlled the speed of the game, and Stephen Myler produced direction of the highest quality. Then, Leinster just did it better — faster, more dynamic, and almost error-free.
With time left on the clock, as substitutions were being made,
it was amazing to see Saints and Leinster players shaking hands with each other. They knew that it was over long before we heard the final whistle.
In fact, everyone sensed it early in the second half — when Jonny Sexton went in for his second try, inevitability hung ominously in the air. 27 points to nil in the second half defines the word ‘emphatic’.
Once the Saints players get over the sheer disappointment of defeat, they will realise that they played their own part in what was an incredible sporting occasion.
They gave their all and ultimately came up against a team with an indomitable spirit and skill in abundance. A charter flight home to Dublin immediately after the match suggests that Joe Schmidt’s demands have not all been met.
Nothing would give Munster more pride than beating the newly-crowned Heineken Cup Champions at Thomond Park.
Leo Cullen’s men are a proud bunch and after a long hard season, while the main trophy has been secured, there is enormous motivation to secure the first ever Magners and Heineken double.
Whatever happens in Limerick, last Saturday evening in Cardiff will go down in history and it was a pleasure to witness it.