What a weekend. Two brilliant finals in Cardiff and plenty of top Super Rugby action certainly make writing this column a whole lot easier. Here are the best bits.
Superb Leinster complete the most unbelievable of turnarounds.
Stunning. I can’t have been the only person who was left speechless in the second half. Northampton were astonishingly powerful in the first half, but the way they burned out must have been harrowing for every one of their supporters. The big runners, Soane Tonga’huia, Brian Mujati, Roger Wilson and Jon Clarke have all barely missed a game this season and it caught up with them in the most disastrous way possible. Leinster looked flummoxed after the first try from Phil Dowson, but by the time Dylan Hartley crossed over before half-time they were in pieces. Saints suffered the week before in the scrum against Leicester at Welford Road but here they were rampant, squeezing Mike Ross agonisingly out of shape resulting in penalty after penalty, meaning possession, and ultimately a massive lead. Even with Mujati in the sin-bin, they nicked one against the head. It was relentless.
And then the whistle came. The gut feeling as both sides went in for half-time was that Saints were ahead too early. The lead was incredible, impressive, but with a whole 40 minutes left on the clock, they surely couldn’t keep up the intense pace and power of the first half. And tragically, so it proved. Forgetting for a second the capitulation, Northampton were magnificent in the first period. Measuring the extent of the mental damage this will leave on some of the players is hard to judge. Their rise from winning the Championship to the Heineken Cup final is an example to all clubs to never stop working, it was only four years ago that Saints were relegated. This will have hurt just as much, if not more. But it will only spur them on further.
Which leaves us with the champions, Leinster. Their players spoke beforehand about how winning the competition once had been a big achievement, but to win it twice would achieve greatness as a club. Mission complete. But it didn’t always look on course. Bizarrely non-existent in the first half, with plenty of gaps in the defence and a failure to put together any real form of possession, the Dubliners appeared to have bottled the big occasion. Their comeback is one of the greatest of the professional era. Johnny Sexton was the hero, more on him later, but he was supported brilliantly by the players who were meant to make an impact from the start.
The introduction of Shane Jennings off the bench kicked them into life as he threw his body around breakdowns and tackles, but it was his back row partner Sean O’Brien who blew anyone watching away. He appeared unbreakable as he smashed tackler after tackler off him, replicating the running of Tonga’huia and Calum Clark from the first half. His runs, and those of hooker Richardt Strauss left Northampton’s shattered players grabbing at air and puffing on their knees. Where tackles were missed in the first half, now they were viciously inflicted. And the scrum. All Northampton’s in the first half, but all Leinster in the second. It was truly unbelievable.
It wouldn’t have been a final without a significant contribution from Brian O’Driscoll, but in the first half, after being tackled by Ben Foden when breaking through and then missing the elusive full back as he danced through for Northampton’s second try, he was looking old. But where the pace has gone the mind is still there. His runs and hands caused the questions in the Saints’ defence that have baffled others for years. It is impossible to imagine Leinster without him, and he was at the heart of the response. What a comeback, and what a final!
Quins nick it with minutes to spare!
A timely try from Gonzalo Camacho saw Harlequins home on Friday night at Cardiff City Stadium, providing an excellent warm-up for the Heineken final the following day. Some questionable refereeing from George Clancy, mainly at scrum-time during the closing minutes, meant that Stade were unable to win a penalty in the dying stages which could have brought them the opportunity for three points. It led to remonstrating from the aggrieved captain Sergio Parisse and coach Michael Chieka, but the result was all that mattered. To win the tournament three times is a remarkable achievement for Harlequins. It required nerves of steel from Nick Evans, but who else would you have wanted to notch a championship winning conversion? The reward of a Heineken Cup place for next season is fair reward given that at times this season Harlequins have been exceptional.
Super Rugby: Wins for the Bulls, Crusaders and the Stormers
Another busy weekend of Super Rugby saw the Bulls continue their resurgence after their shocking dip in form whilst overseas, as they beat the Sharks 32-23 in Durban. The champions look like they’re starting to get their swagger back, particular if apparent Bath target Morne Steyn keeps on churning out 22 point hauls every week. In the grand scheme of things they are still way off the pace sitting 8th in the table, but are still in with a big chance of making the playoffs.
Over in Napier the Crusaders warmed up for their crunch game against the Queensland Reds next week with a strong victory over the Chiefs, with Dan Carter collecting 20 of his side’s points. They still trail the Blues at the top of New Zealand conference, but after losing to the Cheetahs last week this was a timely response. The Blues meanwhile crashed at home to the Stormers with a very, very late converted try from Schalk Burger snatching victory. It left replacement Dewald Duvenage, playing out of position at 10, to knock over the pressure kick for the win for the Cape Town outfit, which saw them move up to third in the overall standings.
Try of the weekend goes to Corne Uys of the Cheetahs (click on the name to view). A kick through from Sias Ebersohn set Ryno Benjamin on the chase with half of the field and only one defender in front of him. A fumbled collection from the Rebels defender saw Benjamin pounce and produce a timely flick through the legs to the on-rushing Uys, who working within about three metres of space managed to avoid being tackled into touch and dot the ball down.
The Hero for the weekend is undoubtedly Johnny Sexton. The Irish fly-half apparently provided the all important words at half-time, but what he did on the pitch was more important. Two tries, one from a beautiful wrap around with Jamie Heaslip, saw Leinster get back within two points, but his coolness with the boot put the men in blue into the lead and eventually beyond. Ironically, his one missed kick cost him the achievement of becoming a new record points scorer for a Heineken Cup final. I doubt he was bothered.
Villain of the weekend goes to the Brumbies and Western Force for the rubbish they served up during a 13 all draw in Perth. The standard was woeful, and the gulf between these two sides and the Reds is alarming.
What were your highlights this weekend? Let us know your thoughts.
by Ben Coles.