With the last ever Heineken Cup final taking place this weekend, we thought it would be an appropriate moment to look back at one of the most amazing memories this fine tournament has given us. So sit back, and relive an epic comeback that is up there with the best our sport has ever seen:
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.
Video credit: Rugbydump.com
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!
Original article by Ben Coles
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Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images