HEINEKEN CUP FINAL
LEINSTER 33 NORTHAMPTON 22
Quite simply one of the greatest games ever and that from the confines of a Sussex pub, not the rugby theatre of the Millennium Stadium.
It had absolutely everything. Thank god I did have a pint or two to hand, for taking gulps of ale reminded me I needed to breathe. The collisions were monstrous; the commitment extraordinary.
It could lazily be summed up as a game of two halves, but this was a game and a half – and then some.
Now when you have beaten by one of the most astonishing comebacks in the history of sport and it happened in the final of the European Cup, you are going to look gutted and shell-shocked come the final whistle.
But watching the Northampton players at the end was one of the most brutally compelling, evocative sights I have ever seen on a sporting field. It was beyond desolation. It was savage in its portrayal of emptiness and incomprehension.
Those pictures of the Saints players should be shown over and over again in England football dressing rooms. This is what it truly means to lose when you have given every fibre of your being for the jersey and as for Ben Foden’s monumental effort in defeat, the England full-back should be allowed to kick as many Cardiff cabs as he damn well likes.
Northampton, sensational in the first half opening up a 22-6 lead, did not fall apart. They did not give it away, or assume the Heineken Cup was on its way to Franklin’s Gardens. No, they were beaten by the most sensational 40 minutes in Irish rugby history and utter exhaustion.
The joke was about what went in Leinster’s half-time tea. One assumed a grandee like Brian O’Driscoll or Jamie Heaslip had stoked the fury. But then we heard from O’Driscoll that the rousing orator was a boy who looks like a reject from a Dublin boy band, who makes it to the semi-finals of X Factor.
Take a bow Ireland outside-half Jonathan Sexton, 25, who ended the game with 28 points, including two tries. You may as well throw him the Lions no 10 jersey for the first Test in Australia. As the X Factor judges would say: ‘You owned that stage Jonny.’ This Sexton did not just dig the Saints’ grave; he built a cathedral on it.
“There were some inspirational words from Jonathan at half-time which picked us up. He was a man possessed. He said this game would be remembered if we came back and we will remember this for a long time,” said O’Driscoll.
The Leinster forwards were too busy speed-eating spinach at half-time to say anything. Sean O’Brien, the Leinster flanker, was a beast in the second-half, with Heaslip not far behind, while hooker Richardt Strauss did anything but waltz as he, front-row cohort Cian Healy, and the rest of the pack tore up trees and through tackles, whilst having the wit and composure to offload subtly or run intelligent support lines with pace and power.
The biggest significance of this display: The World Cup. Ireland were an embarrassment in France four years ago. The New Zealand tournament may still be four months away, but with days like these to draw on, coupled with the way Ireland beat up England at the end of the Six Nations, who knows what they might achieve.