EUROPE and Leinster has been a highly-fraught relationship full of heartache, disappointment and bitterness, but the bad vibes of a decade were eliminated yesterday. One game, and one victory, but what a game and what a victory. Perhaps the best thing you could say about Leinster, when there were so many superlatives swirling around an atmospheric Croke Park, is that they out-Munstered Munster.
Scoring three tries to none, and defending as if their very lives depended on it, Leinster jumped so many psychological hurdles on their way to this Heineken Cup final. Gone now are the doubts that have plagued them for years, and with no fear of putting the mockers on the tournament’s great underachievers, glory awaits at Murrayfield in three weeks’ time.
Admittedly the try that sealed Munster’s fate was the product of Brian O’Driscoll’s opportunism as he stole Ronan O’Gara’s pass to race away in a reprise of Trevor Halstead’s interception in the 2006 Lansdowne Road massacre, but the other two were truly things of beauty.
Realising that the sort of backs-to-the-wall rearguard action that saw them survive at Harlequins would never be enough against Munster’s powerful wiles, Leinster had to do more than kick a few penalties.
Having been pummelled during the opening minutes, they steadied themselves and first Gordon D’Arcy, and then Luke Fitzgerald, crossed for scores that were spectacular in their execution. If Leinster have grafted a harder exterior on to their notoriously soft underbellies, they demonstrated to the doubters yesterday that their all-singing, all-dancing game was alive and well.
But when Munster trailed by 18-6 early in the second half and when everyone was expecting the kitchen sink to come flying in the direction of the Davin Stand, Leinster stood firm with the sort of organisation and bloody-mindedness they once lacked.
Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi, Paul O’Connell and Jerry Flannery smashed their way forward time and again only to be met with a savage resistance. Rocky Elsom was magnificent yet again, Shane Jennings got through an extraordinary amount of work, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy used all their experience to reduce the amount of space for Keith Earls and Mafi in midfield, and while it’s probably inappropriate to single out any one player in what was an astonishing collective effort, the captain Leo Cullen had the game of his life.
And all this without a Felipe Contepomi implosion in sight. Although the mercurial out-half missed an early long-range penalty much to the delight of the massed ranks of red, he recovered to open Leinster’s scoring with a dropped goal and was settling well before banjaxing his knee after 25 minutes.
It will be unbelievably cruel if yesterday turns out to be Contepomi’s final appearance for the province, but on came Jonny Sexton to at last make his mark as a playmaker in a high-stakes game. His first contribution was to coolly land a penalty that gave Leinster a 6-3 advantage, and the longer this contest went on, the more he looked at home.
Meanwhile, if Munster occasionally moved with their traditional menace, there were a few more mistakes than we’ve become accustomed to. O’Gara never got a vice-like grip on the game, and significantly their back row of Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy was a major disappointment.
In fact, all Quinlan will take away from this defeat is the worry that his Lions tour could be in jeopardy. Coming up to the hour mark, his hand was caught on camera suspiciously close to Cullen’s eye as the Leinster captain grappled with O’Connell. If Quinlan is cited by the citing commissioner, John Byett of England, and if he is found guilty of gouging, he could face a lengthy ban which would prevent him from travelling to South Africa.
However, that incident couldn’t take anything away from a riveting occasion. You presumed that at the end of the first quarter the intensity might wane, but if anything the hits were more ferocious during the second half.
Having repelled Munster’s opening onslaught which included a scintillating Earls break, Leinster grew in confidence and some well-timed decoy running and an adroit O’Driscoll assist opened the door for Isa Nacewa, who performed impressively at full-back. Nacewa surged clear before linking with D’Arcy who slid over despite Earls’ despairing lunge.
Although Munster cut the gap with O’Gara’s second penalty, Leinster made a perfect start to the second half when after a series of clever handling movements, O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan opened the door for Fitzgerald who finished brilliantly with a step inside Paul Warwick. Sexton converted to make it 18-6.
On came Munster and Howlett brushed past Shane Horgan and nearly scored, and then Mafi almost wriggled through. You half-thought against such persistent and ruthless opponents that Leinster would gradually fall asunder, but instead it was O’Driscoll reading O’Gara’s long pass to O’Connell and picking off the match-winning interception. Sexton duly added the extras.
With their bitter rivals beaten at last, Leinster walked tall out of Croke Park. One step away from redemption.
16 mins Contepomi drop goal 0-3 18 mins O’Gara pen 3-3 26 mins Sexton pen 3-6 31 mins D’Arcy try 3-11 37 mins O’Gara pen 6-11 44 mins Fitzgerald try, Sexton con 6-18 61 mins O’Driscoll try, Sexton con 6-25