Saturday, May 21, 2011

LEINSTER-33 NORTHAMPTON-22


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So it appears the Rapture was called off at the last minute. Why?
Seemingly because God heard some amazing speech being told at a rugby stadium in Cardiff that restored his faith in mankind. Or so the story goes…

Perhaps we’ll never know exactly what went on in that Leinster dressing room at halftime, but whatever it was, it certainly transformed our display by biblical proportions. If there’s one cliché any sports writer worth their salt would want to avoid it’s “a game of two halves”, but there’s no dodging it here.

If you wanted to write the perfect script for this game for Leinster fans you couldn’t have done a better job. In the first half we played much like we had all September way back at the start of the season.

But once the Schmidt-ball Express started rolling, then if the two top Aviva Premiership sides couldn’t live with it, and if the two leading sides AND the reigning champions of the Top14 couldn’t live with it, then the Saints hadn’t a hope in hell.

the second coming 2Although the halftime score may have surprised everyone, the first half performance of the Northampton Saints certainly shouldn’t have. All through the week they were quite happy to cower under the underdog banner as Jim Mallinder set about constructing a cup-winning gameplan, something he has shown more than once he is well capable of doing.

And as the first half wore on, it became clear that the plan was extremely simple : Dominate the scrum, do whatever you can to force mistakes, and when those mistakes happen, punish them.

Of course we were doing everything we could in the first period to spare them the bother of forcing mistakes. With just five minutes on the clock, we had already made six, with two uncharacteristic dropped high-balls from Isa, kicks from Luke and Sexton that didn’t find touch, a ball lost in the tackle from Jamie and finally, although this was a tad unlucky, a booming Sexton clearance that was just too far and pinned us back in our own 22.

That doesn’t mean the Saints weren’t doing everything they could though…sometimes legally, with superb tackling particularly from their locks Lawes and Day, and sometimes not so much, as Belfast-born number 8 Roger Wilson created the gap which led to the Saints’ opening try by clearly holding Shaggy’s leg to stop him taking his place in the defence.

But in case you think I’m using that missed Wilson transgression as an excuse, far from it. It’s a professional game, and these things are done all over the pitch by both sides and if you can get away with them, well and good. And it certainly was only a small contributor to the unbelievable halftime scoreline.

If the first quarter was dominated by our mistakes, the second was the Ben Foden Show. The man had a awesome game throughout and has not only nailed down the England World Cup 15 jersey, but surely the Lions one for 2013 is his to lose as well. Just when it mattered at both ends of the pitch he was able to make telling contributions, from a try-saving tackle on O’Driscoll to a cheeky defensive sidestep around Nacewa to, of course, the powerful finish for the Saints’ second try.

Of course you can’t mention that five-pointer without highlighting the first half scrum domination. It was the one area where the Saints always felt they could have the edge, but never mind the starting front row of Tonga’uiha, Hartley and Mujati…top praise must go to Tom Mercey for his 10-minute shift when he helped his pack win the scrum against the head which had Leinster on the back foot and led to Foden crossing.

the second coming 3Already the word “shell-shocked” was creeping into the heads of all pundits covering the game, but more was still to come. We were living off scraps going forward and right at the restart after Sexton had clawed three points back to make it 6-17, Hines went and dropped it again to hand the momentum right back to Northampton.

Just then they were back to full strength, and where most sides would be happy to shove it up the jumper through to the break, not so the Saints and after D’Arcy missed another tackle which saw Jon Clarke get it close to the line again, by quickly flinging it out wide, the forwards were able to get it home.

But though none of us could see it, even as the TMO confirmed the third try, a few little signs began to show that the times could be a-changing. Hartley clearly had his bell rung badly as he forced the ball down over the line and as George Hook suggested, should probably not have come out for the second half. Plus, Saints out-half Myler, who surpassed all expectations and had an excellent first half all round, had his first piece of bad luck as his conversion came back towards him off the upright.

So the Saints went marching in to their dressing room and as Jonny Sexton was evoking the memories of Liverpool in Istanbul 2005 across the hall, you can only imagine what Jim Mallinder was telling his charges.

Well, I can hold my hand on my heart and say I believed we could come back, but the way I saw it, we needed to be going into the final quarter within seven points to have a hope. Little did I know we’d be going into the final quarter with the cup all but won!

Do I need to describe our three second half tries? You’re reading this write-up, so no doubt you’ve already seen them a gagillion times already. Eventually someone will put them up on YouTube and when they do I’ll link to them here, here, and here.

There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language to describe how amazing Leinster were in that second half. Sure, the Saints had put so much effort into constructing the lead no doubt they were shattered. Sure, they may have lost the edge in their scrummaging as Hartley’s concentration was compromised. But you can’t be sure that either of those things would have stopped the Sexton-led charge which began literally from the restart as we turned the ball over at the very first contact.

As Phil Dowson went off the field for his yellow card, I certainly wasn’t going to say it to anyone in Kiely’s of Donnybrook where I was watching the match, but even though the clock was just ticking over to the 60-minute mark, I was almost sure we had it in the bag. It was only a few short minutes later when Sky commentator Miles Harrison said “and that is surely that”.

the second coming 4And Sexton may have been the driving force and the must-deserved man of the match, but I can’t let this article end without referring to Isa Nacewa. Shoo-in for Leinster if not Northern Hemisphere Player Of The Year, he not only got back his high-catching mojo but when the Saints were getting a late sniff of pulling back a score he wasn’t happy in chasing Foden down he got up and made sure Chris Ashton didn’t get near the line with a smother tackle from behind which left him worse off than he was after that punch from Manu.

One last thought…he may have missed a few things here and there but I have to say I thought Roman Poite silenced every single one of his pre-match critics. He called it as he saw it and in no way was a factor in the result.

And it was a result that you would think would be a perfect way to end a season but no, there’s one more matter to be resolved, that being a trip down the N7 next Saturday in an attempt to pull off what many Leinster fans are calling a “Snakebite Double” of Heineken & Magners.

If it was anywhere but Thomond Park, I’d be very confident. Instead I’m only quietly so. But there’s nothing that can happen down there that can take away from that wonderful Saturday evening. Better feeling than Edinburgh or the Grand Slam in 2009? The way the match played out I reckon so!

Well done Joe Schmidt, Jonny Sexton, Leo Cullen & the boys. Legends all. JLP

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