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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 23, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    Luck played no part in heroic comeback

    Carl O'Malley

    Leinster lift the Heineken Cup after defeating  Northampton 33-22 in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

    Leinster lift the Heineken Cup after defeating Northampton 33-22 in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

    If ever there was a lesson for a country on its knees, it came on Saturday in the shape of Leinster’s truly astonishing second half comeback in Cardiff. 

    Jonny Sexton’s performance after the break cannot be measured in points alone. He scored 22 of his 28 in the second half as Leinster recovered from a 16-point deficit. Two tries resuscitated his flat-lining side before Nathan Hines put Leinster out of sight, yet this was no one-man show.  As much as Sexton’s name will be indelibly inked on accounts of this game for years to come, there were heroes all over the Cardiff sod on Saturday.

    It sounds trite to say it, but it was a monumental collective effort; a shining example of positive pack mentality.

    Sexton spoke at halftime, “like a man possessed”, according to Brian O’Driscoll, and the response was remarkable. Leinster were transformed from 15 individuals, who at times looked dazed and confused in the first half, into a unit capable of delivering ‘shock and awe’ on a hitherto dangerously dominant opponent.

    Sexton cited Liverpool’s great comeback in Istanbul in 2005 during the break and it’s the obvious comparison in the aftermath. However, there is one crucial difference. There was no luck involved in Cardiff. It was pure class and utter annihilation of a Saints side that had beaten them up before the break. It wasn’t even Rocky Balboa stuff. He was battered during his comebacks, he just managed to stay standing longer.

    Leinster were against the ropes, desperately covering up, unsure of where the next shot would come from. Some were legal, some were not but the Saints fought smart – Roger Wilson’s timely tug on Shane Horgan’s leg before Phil Dowson’s opening try was the ultimate in gamesmanship.  Stephen Myler’s accuracy with the boot was unforgiving and by the time Dylan Hartley was awarded the third try by the TMO there was a desperate air of inevitability about it all. Had the whistle not intervened the towel might have.

    That night in Istanbul was the greatest football final ever, but there was a sense of divine intervention about it because Liverpool were in the company of a far superior team. The comeback against AC Milan, while spectacular and infinitely memorable, owed something to the Gods. Leinster’s was man made.

    It wasn’t a performance of pride, it wasn’t damage limitation. It was, in its simplest form, a refusal to accept defeat.

    ‘Sorry, Saints, that was good, but the bar is actually up here.’

    Ever the go to men, Heaslip and O’Driscoll punched the first holes. Both had uncharacteristically coughed up possession before the break, but there would be no repeat.

    Seán O’Brien and Richardt Strauss skittled tacklers at will like they had all season and when the latter offloaded inches from the ground to the horizontal frame of secondrow captain Leo Cullen, who gathered with the skill and dexterity of fullback Isa Nacewa, Northampton were goosed.

    Perhaps the most significant moment of the half, however, was that shared by Cian Healy and Mike Ross after they drove the Saints scrum into the ground. A ceremonial touching of foreheads that signalled they were no longer separate entities, but mere components in a ruthless machine bent on destruction.

    Soane Tonga’uiha, the man who orchestrated their nightmarish first 40 minutes was aptly rendered obsolete when rounded by Sexton for the first try. Heaslip did a Wilson for the second to create that bit of space and again the outhalf obliged, though he still had work to do. The penalties that secured and extended the lead came at a time when Northampton were receiving a standing count – staring blankly into middle distance and enveloped by white noise.

    The third try from Hines wasn’t crucial to the result but was proof that what had gone on beforehand was not some sort of fluke, or something orchestrated from elsewhere. It was a final jab in the chest, a point being made – a ‘don’t do that again!’

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    • Cathal says:

      Could you clarify what ‘luck’ was involved in Instanbul .. I was ‘lucky’ enough to be there but it seems the events on the night were not dicated by the underdogs self belief and never say die attitude but actually based on the musings of some random, whimsical deity …. I would have expected more from The Irish Times

    • Declan Roche says:

      I saw the Leinster/Tolouse game in Aviva. I thought it couldn’t have been bettered. Leinster were on fire that day against an brutal defense. I was in Cardiff on Saturday and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. An incredible second half performance. A remarkable ‘game of two halves’ by two great teams. However, Leinster are in a league of their own. To come back after the mauling they got in the first half scrums and to totally dominate the second half was the best rugby I have ever seen. The reaction of the fans was indescribable. From despair to delight in 40 minutes. I’ll never forget it. Leinster are truly the champions of Europe. What a team. Munster must be sh*tting themselves.

    • Cathal, I was also lucky enough to be there. It was a night I will never forget. But did you not leave believing there was some higher power involved? I did. I wasn’t trying to detract from that night, merely point out that the two comebacks were very different. Not better, just different.

      Liverpool’s ‘six minutes of madness’, as one Italian paper put it, was the stuff of legends, but they did not dominate the half and there is always luck involved where penalties are concerned. Leinster destroyed Saints after the break and, unlike in Istanbul, didn’t have to rely on miraculous moments like Dudek’s save from Shevchenko, because they were so utterly dominant.

      In short, it wasn’t a dig at Liverpool, I was just comparing the reference point for Sexton’s halftime speech with the result of it.

    • Mairtin Kearney says:

      Wow Cathal, how on earth could you not see how jammy Liverpool were in Istanbul – and I say this as a fan of the club who was also present at the game? Dudek’s ludicrous double save, Traore’s goal line clearance and the fact that apart from those legendary 6 minutes we were completely and utterly dominated? Not ringing any bells, no?? I am just amazed that you can’t see that one of the reasons winning it was so sweet is BECAUSE we were so lucky!

    • John Mc says:

      I was lucky enough to be in Cardiff too.. to see a remarkable come back in what has to be the rarest game of Rugby I will ever see. a Superb Leinster performance in the second half. Declan, thats where the similarities of my analysis and yours ends though. There was only one great team out there, and that was Leinster. Northampton are good.. but far from great.. and had Leinster performed in such a manner as they did in the first half against a proven, battle hardened European team (a la Tolouse, Munster, Biaritz perhaps.. ) I fear the outcome would have been different for them. I’m not trying to take away from a truly magnificent performance by the outstanding team in Europe this year by a long way… I was privileged, and delighted to be there to witness it.

      oh, and BTW.. Munster will never be shi**ing themselves at the prospect of playing anyone on a Rugby field… Looking forward to Saturday

    • Feargal says:

      ‘Sorry, Saints, that was good, but the bar is actually up here.’

      Please, don’t be smug. This is the kind of language we’ve come to expect and bemoan from English tabloids regarding any sporting victory. Let’s not sink to their level.

    • Michael says:

      “Munster must be sh*tting themselves”. Hhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmm
      Without question Leinster deserve the plaudits for their achievements this season, they have been truly remarkable and without question, the best team in Europe.
      I cheered and applauded and roared on Leinster on Saturday, as an Irish team, a group of guys I’ve watched for years, and I was delighted for them, it was an incredible second half performance and one that will last in the memory and always be referenced.
      Munster will form a guard of honour and clap Leinster onto the pitch on Saturday as a mark of respect and to congratulate a very, very worthy team.
      But to say “Munster will be sh*tting themselves” is to forget the nature of the beast. Nothing will stir the soul of Munster players at the end of a poor season more than a shot at a little redemption. Now don’t get me wrong, there’ll be a stark realisation that they have fallen behind and are no longer top dogs, but Leinster also know, that of all the grounds in Europe they could be going to this weekend, they will get the warmest welcome in Limerick!!!!

      While the tribalism is understandable, and fuels each of our fires, I think, as rugby fans, we should show a little more respect and deference especially to our own countrymen!!

      Here’s hoping Saturday is a great occasion, for rugby, for Irish rugby. May the best team over the 80 minutes win
      (because christ, as a munster supporter I know that we can only now be the best team for 80 minutes against what is unquestionably the best team in Europe)

      Congratulations Leinster.

    • orieldude says:

      I was in Istanbul and the second half was reasonably even after Liverpool’s three goal salvo. They were lucky to get back into it considering the first half, but it wasn’t about luck after that – a goalkeeper pulling off a great save is as much a part of the sport as the one in a hundred bicycle kick goal or whatever.

      As for Leinster it was an amazing match to behold. But they were red hot favourites going into it – Gerry Thornley, for one example, predicted a six to 10 point margin in advance – and Northampton clearly wilted and collapsed after Leinster got back into it. It is very reasonable to contrast the level of attrition in the two matches played by both sides the week before. Once again the asinine Magner’s League facilitated an Irish side in the Heineken Cup, while the Guinness Premiership once again proved a handicap for an English side.

      That’s not meant to take away from the spectacle, which was stunning, but the outcome does deserve more context than it has been given in the cold light of day. I would suggest a far more accurate football-comparison would be from ten years ago, when Spurs lead Man Utd 3-0 at half time and lost 3-5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2001/oct/01/match.sport1

    • Kelly says:

      Congratulations Leinster. You really deserved it! There is no denying that the game thay played on Saturday was pure skill and team-work. Liverpools second half however was one of the luckiest 45 minutes i have ever witnessed.
      I am really hoping for a Leinster win also on Saturday, but I’m not sure if i can actually call the result. I know that Munster are dying for a bit of silverware, and will do everything thay can to get it. I’m just hoping that it will be as good a match as what everyone seems to think it will be. Eitherway, i think it is a great occasion for Irish Rugby. May the best Irish team win…

    • Jonathan MacGiolla Chomhgaill says:

      ‘Sorry, Saints, that was good, but the bar is actually up here.’

      I agree with what Feargal on this. I watched a great game, and despite the comment made to me by a Saint’s fan at half time; “don’t worry you can have another go next year”, after the final whistle I just shook his hand and said that was an exceptional game played by two great teams.

    • John B. Reid says:

      Leinster’s sheer superiority and confidence shone through in the end. To paraphrase Carly Simon: Nobody (in Europe) does it half as good as them, baby they’re the best!

      I also think that it is a great idea for Rob Kearney to spend some time improving his skills and playing some good-quality games in the Southern Hemisphere over the Summer (their Winter). Contrary to what some of the reports have been indicating, Rob Kearney should focus on securing a berth with one of the New Zealand franchises, ideally with the Canterbury Crusaders or the Wellington Hurricanes. He will play a better game after spending time with these franchises than he would if he went to South Africa or Australia.


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