Was it a dream? Did that second half in Cardiff really happen? I had to check the papers to confirm it. Leinster are the 2011 Heineken Cup champions. But that simply sentence does not do justice to what happened in the Millennium stadium last Saturday evening. What we witnessed was one of the greatest sporting comebacks in recent memory. But just how did they do it?
Surely there has never been a better sporting example of the ebb and flow of physic energy. In the first half all the confidence and belief was with Northampton. They played without fear. Leinster on the other hand looked bound by it.
Northampton took the game to Leinster in that first half. Everything they tried came off and with that the confidence and belief that they could win flowed. With every mistake that Leinster made they became tenser. They tried to force their game to flow and when it didn’t they became more uptight.
It seemed that not only were Leinster losing the battle out on the pitch but they had lost the mental battle also. Players that never normally make mistakes started to make some. All their good work over the last ten months seemed like it would be for nothing. Then it happened.
Right on the stroke of half time the Northampton fly half Stephen Myler’s penalty nudged the post and bounced away from the goal. Leinster went in at half time 16 points down instead of 19. It was an inch on the field of play but a mile in the mind for both sides.
Whatever exactly happened in the Leinster dressing room at half time will remain sacred. What we do know is that some strong characteristics came to the fore. Self –belief, a willingness to never give up and most of all a stubbornness and faith in each other that they would get back into the game. That is either in a team or in individuals or it isn’t. You can’t buy or manufacture what this Leinster team have.
The mental toll that the first half must have taken on them was huge. Expectations were that Leinster would win on Saturday quiet comfortably. The resulting psychological shift shows just what is required to win at the highest level. To be able to take what Northampton threw at them in the first half and still win by 10 points says a lot for this Leinster team.
When Jonny Sexton scored that first try the seed of doubt was planted in the mind of the Northampton’s players mind. After the second try that doubt turned to panic. For Leinster their belief and confidence that they could still win the Heineken Cup returned and their rugby began to flow.
The mental edge was now with Leinster. Just like in the first half Northampton became the team that tried to force their rugby while Leinster’s flowed. A lot can also be said for momentum. Once Leinster got into their groove and had momentum behind them they became impossible to stop.
While Jonny Sexton rightly gets the lion’s share of the plaudits for Leinster’s comeback it would be remissive of me not to mention Brian O’Driscoll. Despite been clearly not 100% at any stage of the game he dug deep into his reserve tank and pulled out a remarkable 20 minute display in the second half to show why he is the greatest modern Irish rugby player.
Victory on Saturday not only confirmed Leinster as one of Europe’s elite clubs it also confirmed what can be done if people and teams adopt a winning attitude.
And on a week where Ireland has witnessed the great and the good come to our soil we should look up the road, to the RDS, and take inspiration from what this Leinster team has achieved and what they will achieve in the future.