Malcolm O'Kelly: Leinster heroes never lacked heart
Leinster’s Heineken Cup final win was a highly-charged emotional affair that called on more than silky handling or front row battering, writes Malcolm O'Kelly.
Given the occasion, the circumstances at about 5.45pm on Saturday and the sense of defeat and despair for Leinster fans in the Millennium Stadium at that moment, this was the comeback of all comebacks that I’ve ever witnessed.
Leinster’s Heineken Cup final win was a highly-charged emotional affair that called on more than silky handling or front row battering. And it’s easy to see why.
Directly after the final both Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Sexton admitted that the character rebuilding and mental energy summoned to turn around a 16-point deficit against a Northampton side that was utterly awesome in the first half came from the heart.
Sexton did the talking in the dressing room, we all know that. But what he did for the next 40 minutes on the field was nothing short of heroic.
When you get to a final you’re not a bad team. Leinster hadn’t forgotten how to play the game. I think it was more a case of stress and tension, aches and pains; all built up after a weary season. It got to them in the first half and Northampton capitalised accordingly.
Leinster dropped so much ball I couldn’t believe my eyes! They made mistakes everywhere and only had a couple of decent breaks going forward. Shane Horgan offloaded to Ricardt Strauss and it didn’t come off, while O’Driscoll was destined for the line until it broke down in the last few strides. Everyone was on their feet at that stage but it was deflation and not elation.
At half-time there was an eeriness about it all from a Leinster perspective. The consensus was that it just wasn’t going to be their day. I even turned to Girvan Dempsey beside me and said “We’ll need a miracle to come back from this”. He nodded in approval.
But, it was a miracle we got and what can I say about it?
What a Sex Show
Sexton controlled the game with composure from the restart and suddenly we were seeing the real Leinster. He hadn’t much to play around with in the first half but it was the Sexton Show after his interval speech. His use of the ball couldn’t be faulted with an astute kicking performance in tow. Inspiration, direction, try scoring and near-perfection form the tee, what more could we have asked for?
Northampton’s front rowers had run out of steam, it was obvious. They couldn’t live with what Leinster threw at them and it wasn’t long before we nullified them in the scrum – an area where we had failed so miserably in the opening 40 minutes.
Leinster’s cutting edge had returned. The team played with the desperation and hunger that got them there. The error count of the first half was a distant memory as offload after offload stuck. Instead of Leinster falling off tackles it was Northampton who succumbed to wave after wave of Leinster attack play. Every player seemed to be dynamic with Richardt Strauss leading the charge.
The first try came after a continued onslaught of the Northampton line with Jonny eventually scrambling around a flailing defender. The place erupted with the thought of a comeback and it was well and truly on in my eyes at that stage.
The second try broke Northampton’s spirit. Ironically, it was delivered off a steady scrum! The scrum had contributed massively to Northampton’s two tries. The first off a strong left shoulder and the second from a series of scrum penalties – giving good territory away – followed by another against the head which led directly to the try.
The front row have to be commended for sticking to the task and turning things around. Every man out there delivered a performance that for all but the very faithful, believed wasn’t there. It was an incredible day to have experienced and although I wasn’t out on the park I don’t think I could have enjoyed it anymore.
High five time
It’s pure ecstasy for all the boys at the moment. They’re enjoying the homecoming but focus will have turn to Munster in the Magners League final. It will be a case of who is fit and able for Schmidt but the thought of a full house in Thomond Park will help nourish the aching muscles.
How much a win of that nature will take out of the lads is hard to know but Schmidt won't be afraid to dip into his squad and perhaps repay some of the players that helped Leinster get to the Magners league final.
It was great to do our neighbours Connacht a favour also. Heineken Cup rugby next season is a big step up for them but I’m sure they’ll hold their own if they get some more depth in the squad. I know Johnny O’Connor and company will be chomping at the bit for it anyway and the best of luck to the Westerners.