In the end, they followed through like their lives depended on it. Leinster won the Heineken Cup as though it was their birthright. None of your having to lose one to win one, none of that. No, they came to Edinburgh and in front of a 66,523 crowd – of which they owned easily the majority of the partisans – they beat Leicester 19-16. And with it, they most surely shut everybody up. For now and forever.
They did it without Felipe Contepomi but such was Johnny Sexton’s composure throughout that he was barely missed. Any worries about how Sexton would handle it all evaporated inside the opening half hour, giving succour to an Irish rugby public that has for years dreaded the day that Ronan O’Gara walks away from the game. He took to the game like you’d imagine Johnny Rotten took to his first stage and microphone. The downright belligerence of his 18th-minute drop-goal alone – when he launched it from the halfway line, he was standing closer to the sideline than the centre sport – told you all you needed to know about whether the occasion was getting to him or not.
He wasn’t alone. Brian O’Driscoll spent much of the second half marooned on the wing to protect a sore shoulder – he dismissed any suggestion afterwards that his Lions trip was in danger – and yet he still found time to kick a drop-goal, set up Jamie Heaslip’s try and make the break that led to Sexton’s winning penalty nine minutes from the end. Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings paid their former employers back as well throughout the game.
But above them all stood Rocky Elsom. If this was his last match for Leinster, the club will feel like it has lost a limb. He was immense here, a locomotive with shaggy hair. In a game where tiredness became a dominant factor the longer we went on, he was unstoppable. Man Of The Match was the easiest decision of the day.
They deserved it in the end, all the more so because they’d allowed it to slip away after dominating the opening. Leinster were like a nice decaf coffee in the first 25 minutes – all very smooth but lacking the requisite kick that a try would have brought. They didn’t really come close in fact and you couldn’t shake the feeling that this just wouldn’t do. Leicester have built an empire on eating for breakfast teams that dominate them without killing them off. Sexton had added a penalty to his drop-goal and on top of Brian O’Driscoll’s early drop goal, that gave them nine points by the half hour. Respectable, yes. Match-winning? Not on your life.
By keeping them within arm’s length, Leicester knew they only had to land one punch. It would be silly to think anyone batted an eyelid when they did so right before half-time. With Stan Wright in the sin-bin and Leicester only three points down, Ben Woods surged over after collecting a snappy Sam Vesty offload. They went in at half-time 13-9 ahead despite having spent the majority of the half chasing their tails. Typical.
These are the trials that test men’s souls. Leinster have been around long enough to know they wouldn’t get the benefit of any doubt had they not dug themselves out of this. Beating Munster in as epic a semi-final as we saw three weeks ago only bought them so much credit. Not to follow it up now would have been dismissed as, like, soooo Leinster. So it was no surprise when things got worse before they got better. Julien Dupuy extended the lead to 16-9 three minutes after the break.
This was Leinster’s day though, even if it took more O’Driscoll class to make it so. His half break and off-load to Sexton was the killer move of the game, Sexton sending Heaslip over next to the posts. Leicester were broken now and by the finish they looked like a team with nothing left to give. In the end, it was left to Sexton to kick the winning penalty. It wasn’t a sitter but although it flirted with the right-hand post, it found a way through.
And so ends the greatest season Irish rugby has ever had. Whatever will we find to get excited about now?