Leinster crowned champions of Europe

 

Leinster 19 Leicester Tigers 16:Leinster are the Heineken European Cup champions for 2009. In a true coming of age story, Jonathan Sexton landed the vital 71st minute penalty to edge clear of English champions the Leicester Tigers in a contest what will go down as a truly epic performance from Michael Cheika’s men.

Sexton deserves the plaudits while man of the match (again!) Rocky Elsom, Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll carried their weight as ever but a special mention must be made for the amazing, tireless contributions of Lions number eight in waiting Jamie Heaslip and openside Shane Jennings.

They simply dominated their opposing backrow in a match that was ultimately sorted out in the collision zones.

The opening half hour was full of promise with an O’Driscoll drop goal after six minutes settling Leinster nerves, as did Julien Dupuy for the Tigers moments later with a penalty. Jamie Heaslip was penalised for not rolling away in the tackle by the pernickety and inconsistent referee Nigel Owens.

It seemed like Leinster’s day from the initial exchanges with Sexton looking like a veteran, exuding confidence with some neat line kicking and solid defence, particularly a tackle on Alesana Tuilagi at full tilt.

On 17 minutes the St Mary’s outhalf lit up the contest with a finely struck drop goal from the half way line after a wayward kick by his opposite number Sam Vesty.

Vesty, the third choice Leiceter outhalf, but after recent performances now in line for England honours this summer, did eventually spark the Tigers running game but not before Sexton made it 9-3 on 24 minutes after Owens penalised the English champions for offside in midfield.

There had been chances for what would have been a crucial breakthrough Leinster try but Geordan Murphy covered a Mal O’Kelly block down on Dupuy and Gordon D’Arcy was held up marginally short after a clever inside pass by Sexton.

Elsom was also making an impact, swathing off two opposing backrowers like they were schoolboys. Jordan Crane was taken off injured to be replaced by Louis Deacon as the Tigers ominously began to up the tempo.

Dan Hipkiss was making inroads in midfield and then on 32 minutes tragedy struck for Leinster. Stan Wright could have no complaint about the yellow card for tackling Vesty early, thereby committing a clear professional foul – whether he meant it or not.

Dupuy made it 9-6 with the resultant penalty and before Leinster could re-group at the break, Ben Woods bludgeoned through the tackle of Isa Nacewa for a try. It came off another Hipkiss half break and excellent Vesty offload in the tackle. Dupuy added the conversion to make it 13-9 at the interval.

It got worse before Wright could come back in with Dupuy tacking on a simple penalty after Cian Healy strayed in front of the hindmost foot in his own 22.

Leinster needed inspiration and Elsom began to carry, brushing off England’s latest super star in waiting Tom Croft while a clever grubber by O’Driscoll put Leinster deep in Tigers territory and with an attacking lineout.

Another obvious bonus was the loss of Murphy to injury as Matt Smith came in. The Leicester captain has been excellent this season and seemed to spread calmness throughout his team be it attack or defence from fullback.

The scores were levelled from the next assault with Heaslip forcing himself over the last line of defenders after crucial carries by O’Driscoll then Jennings.

The physicality of the game intensified with Tuilagi taunting Shane Horgan after belting into the Meath man, while Jennings showed no consideration for his own safety in defence.

Heaslip, Chris Whitaker and Elsom work on the floor all played a part in earning Sexton a long range shot at goal but it fell short.

He was presented with another opportunity from a similar distance after Craig Newby went off his feet. John Fogarty, in fresh for a battered Bernard Jackman, hit his jumper Heaslip but the move disintegrated and Leinster conceded territory. Fogarty's next throw, just inches from the Leinster line, was blatantly crooked but the officials missed it. They were given another reprieve when Marcos Ayerza was penalised at an attacking scrum for not binding.

The atmosphere actually calmed at this juncture with both sets of supporters, allied by a large Munster contingent, gripped by the tension.

Then came a mini-Leicester implosion that allowed Sexton to kick Leinster into the lead with 10 minutes remaining. Matt Smith was penalised on the deck, Vesty put the restart straight out and moments later Hamilton slipped over the touchline. Lewis Moody rescued matters for Leicester but a Nacwea pass almost put Horgan away for the killer score.

They didn’t need it such was their dominance in the closing stages. An utterly deserved and historic result that ensures the European Cup remains in Ireland for another 12 months.

Scoring sequence– 6 mins: B O Driscoll drp gl, 3-0; 8 Mins: J Dupuy pen, 3-3; 17 mins: J Sexton drp gl, 6-3; 24 mins: J Sexton pen, 9-3; 33 mins: Dupuy pen, 9-6; 38 mins: B Woods try, 9-11; J Dupuy conv, 9-13. Half-time. 42 mins: J Dupuy pen, 9-16; 48 mins: J Heaslip try, 14-16; J Sexton conv, 16-16; 70 mins: J Sexton pen, 19-16.

Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Whitaker; C Healy, B Jackman, S Wright; L Cullen (capt), M O'Kelly; R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: R McCormack for S Jennings (temp, 35–42 mins), J Fogarty for B Jackman (55 mins), R McCormack for C Healy (60-64 mins), R Kearney for L Fitzgerald (70 mins).

Leicester Tigers: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, A Erinle, D Hipkiss, A Tuilagi; S Vesty, J Dupuy; M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni; T Croft, B Kay; C Newby, B Woods, J Crane. Replacements: L Deacon for J Crane (29 mins, inj), M Smith for G Murphy (46 mins), J White for M Castrogiovanni (52 mins), B Kayser for G Chuter (55 mins), L Moody for B Woods (60 mins), H Ellis for J Dupuy (74 mins).

Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).

Attendance: 66,523.