Luck played no part in heroic comeback
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!’