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 at last reach the 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 when they take on English club, Leicester, in Edinburgh just over a fortnight’s 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 long pass midway through the second half, 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 in the quarter-final 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 glorious 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 managed to stand 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 and Jamie Heaslip 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 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 Argentine out-half missed an early long-range penalty much to the delight of the massed ranks of red in a world-record crowd for a club game of just over 82,000, he recovered to open Leinster’s scoring with a dropped goal and appeared to be settling well before banjaxing his knee after 25 minutes.
A six-month absence means that this was Contepomi’s final appearance for the province as he leaves for France at the end of the season, but on came Jonathan Sexton to at last make his mark as a playmaker in a high-stakes game. His very first contribution was to coolly land a penalty that gave Leinster a 6-3 advantage, and the longer this pulsating 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 is now in serious 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.
Cited for “alleged contact with the eye area”, if found guilty of gouging he could face a lengthy ban of at least 12 weeks which would prevent him from travelling to South Africa. Earlier this season, the former Ireland back row, Neil Best, was suspended for 18 weeks for eye-gouging.
However, that one incident couldn’t take anything away from what was riveting occasion. You presumed that at the end of the first quarter the intensity might wane just a bit, 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 as Munster gathered themselves for some serious retribution.
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, a Leinsterman through and through whose father, Jerry, is Kerry born and bred, added the extras.
Munster were shell-shocked, their dream of a third European title in tatters, while Leinster and their supporters were ecstatic. They now have to do it all again in the final, but this time with so much belief, it looks like they can.