Leinster were dead and buried at half time, going into the dressing room 22-6 down. Northampton were killing them in the scrum, at the breakdown and in open play.
I’ll be honest with you. I thought it was over. I couldn’t see them coming back, not so much because the gap was too big, but because Saints were so dominant in every aspect of play. And yet, right from the restart, it looked like the two teams had swapped shirts, as Leinster smashed into their opponents, kept possession, forced them to defend desperately, and Jonny Sexton racked up score after score.
We’ve never seen such a comeback in a European Cup final. Within a quarter of an hour, Leinster had the lead. It was an extraordinary display of determination and refusal to to quit, combined with some outstanding individual performances. Brian O Driscoll, as usual, was at the top of his game, proving once again that he is one of the finest players ever to step onto a rugby pitch, and Sexton put in the display of his life.
Whatever was said in the dressing room worked. Leinster’s scrummaging improved beyond recognition and the substitution of Jennings for McLaughlin probably improved things at the breakdown for Leinster. O’Driscoll got the measure of Foden and I thought Nacewa was immense under the high ball.
It’s true that Saints were tired after a hard semi-final against Leicester the previous week, and Ashton must also have been feeling the effects of the thumping he got from Tuilagi in that match. It’s also true that Hartley got a nasty bang on the head in the first half and stayed on to finish the game, but all in all, I think Northampton were in the end beaten by a team with more self-belief on the day. With twenty minutes to go, it seemed to me that their players were acting like defeated men. The body language was not good.
On a broader point, this match showed in stark detail how punishing the modern game has become. I know the players are all much bigger and stronger now than they used to be say 15 years ago, but that also means bigger impacts, and while you can beef up in the gym, bone is still just bone, and ligament is still just ligament. I’m beginning to wonder what the future holds for professional rugby players at this level. In the last few weeks we saw the retirement of two young players from the Munster squad : Barry Murphy, who had a nasty ankle break against Ulster, and Ian Dowling, who suffered a bad hip injury against Ospreys back in September. Of the players who soldier on, what will life be like in ten years time? What lifelong damage have they suffered, especially players as courageous as Brian O Driscoll?
But that’s a discussion for another day.
Here’s wishing Leinster well. They thoroughly deserved their second Heineken Cup, matching Munster’s haul, and we’ll welcome them to Thomond Park next weekend for the final of the Magners League.