Leinster 33-22 Northampton: 'Phenomenal' Sexton inspires Leinster to take European crown

Leinster 33Northampton 22

Referee: R Poite (FRU)

Attendance: 72,456

Brian O'Driscoll hailed a "phenomenal" performance by Jonathan Sexton after Leinster conquered Europe less than four months before Ireland launch their World Cup campaign in New Zealand.

Sexton, scourge of England nine weeks ago when he orchestrated their Grand Slam downfall in Dublin, returned to haunt Northampton's red rose stars like Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley.

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His 28-point haul - two short of equalling Diego Dominguez's Heineken Cup final record for Stade Francais against Leicester in 2001 - inspired Leinster to their second European title.

Sexton's Millennium Stadium masterclass - on and off the pitch - proved one of the long-running tournament's most inspired individual contributions. Not only did the 25-year-old pick Leinster up by the bootlaces from 16 points down at half-time with two tries, four penalties and three conversions, but he also delivered a stirring dressing room rallying cry when his team-mates needed it most.

Sexton evoked the memory of Liverpool's astounding fightback against 2005 Champions' League final opponents AC Milan in Istanbul, when they wiped out a 3-0 deficit to lift the trophy.

"Besides what he produced in the second-half, some of his words at half-time really struck a chord with a lot of people," said O'Driscoll, of his Leinster and Ireland colleague. "He talked about making it all the more memorable because of what we had to do from 22-6 behind. You could see he had the bit between his teeth and he was ready for it.

"To pick up two tries, produce a great kicking performance and just control the way he did, it was a phenomenal second-half performance by him. He really stood up to the plate. You need your ten to be a senior player and a leader and he was very much that for us. He was a man possessed."

Sexton kicked a match-winning penalty when Leinster lifted the Heineken Cup at Leicester's expense in Edinburgh two years ago and, once again, he came up trumps, orchestrating a 33-22 victory that appeared inconceivable midway through a pulsating contest.

"I watch a lot of sport, and that Liverpool game just stuck in my mind for some reason," he said. "I said that we see in sport that teams can come back like Liverpool did a few years ago. Stuff like this happens.

"It felt it was gone when they got that third try, that everything we had done to get out of the pool and get to the final was down the drain. We were shellshocked and we needed half-time. We regrouped. We had to believe and we took our chances."

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Scotland lock Nathan Hines sealed an epic win with a try, leaving Northampton to rue a season without silverware despite reaching the Heineken final and Aviva Premiership semi-finals. First-half touchdowns for Foden, Hartley and flanker Phil Dowson proved insufficient.

O'Driscoll added: "We knew there were scores in us and 27 unanswered second-half points proved that, although I don't think anyone was thinking that far ahead. It was about emotion, desire and then application of your skills and the intensity you bring to the game. The difference between the two halves was absolutely huge.

"I think it makes the magnitude of it (the comeback] so much bigger because it is a Heineken Cup final. That is what makes it so much sweeter.

"The second one is meant to be the harder to win and it's been a hard road beating a lot of the sides we have beaten along the way.

"Sixteen points down at half-time, to be able to come back from that answers a lot of questions about character and about the ability of the team.

"I think once we got the second try, we felt there was only going to be one winner. We had momentum and impetus, and they were sitting off us. We just had to continue playing.

"Once you go into a lead sometimes you can go into your shell, but I don't think at any stage we did that. We continued trying to get scores."

Foden insisted Northampton have no choice but to use the bitter experience of defeat to fuel their bid for European glory next year.

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The Saints, unbeaten in Europe all season, had one hand on the trophy after storming into a 16-point half-time lead. No side had ever overturned a half-time deficit of more than nine points in a Heineken Cup final - until Saturday.

Northampton were left desolate on the final whistle, their players strewn about the field, some in tears. Foden had never experienced disappointment like it.

But the England full-back insisted the Saints would come back stronger next season. "We will learn a huge lesson from this game. A lot of players haven't been involved in games such as these. Our first taste of major silverware is a bitter one," said Foden.

"We play this game to be in moments like this. We had one foot through the door. For Leinster to come back from that scoreline probably makes the taste of victory even sweeter, and for us that little bit more bitter. It builds character and we are a good enough team to go away and build from it."

Northampton scored early through Dowson and kept their foot on Leinster's throat until the interval. Even when prop Brian Mujati was sin-binned, Northampton's seven-man pack won a scrum against the head and Foden scampered outside O'Driscoll to score.

Hartley was driven over the line just before the interval but Northampton's fairytale then turned into a horror story with Sexton their tormentor-in-chief.

The Irish province made some technical changes to their scrum at half-time which negated Northampton's control of the set-piece and they attacked with renewed ferocity and intensity.

Sexton touched down twice and compiled 20 points in as many minutes as Leinster surged into a lead they would never relinquish.

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"They put in an outstanding performance. Jonny Sexton was outstanding with the boot and in open play," said Foden.

"There was some great rugby played by both sides. I am pretty sure the neutral spectator would have had a ball watching it.

"We knew it was an 80-minute game, that's the thing about rugby. There was a momentum swing and things started to go their way."

Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder put some of the second-half collapse down to fatigue but he will reflect on promising signs for the future.

"We played a very tough semi-final last week and an incredibly tough final today. I am nothing but immensely proud to be part of this team," he said.

"We have learned a lot this year, not just tonight. We have shown we can compete with some of the best teams in Europe.

"Four years ago we were in the first division. We have come a long way to where we are now. Hopefully we can stay there and we can win one of these big ones."

Scorers: Leinster: Tries: J Sexton 2, Hines. Cons: J Sexton 3. Pens: J Sexton 4. Northampton: Tries: Dowson, Foden, Hartley. Cons: Myler 2. Pen: Myler.

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Leinster: Nacewa; Horgan, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald; J. Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Strauss, Ross, Cullen, Hines, McLaughlin, O'Brien, Heaslip. Replacements: McFadden for D'Arcy (67), Madigan for J. Sexton (77), Boss for Reddan (71), van der Merwe for Healy (61), Toner for Strauss (77), Wright for Ross (77), Harris-Wright for Hines (77), Jennings for McLaughlin (41).

Northampton: Foden; Ashton, Clarke, Downey, Diggin; Myler, Dickson; Tonga'uiha, Hartley, Mujati, Lawes, Day, Clark, Dowson, Wilson. Replacements: Commins for Ashton (77), Ansbro for Downey (66), Geraghty for Myler (66), Waller for Tonga'uiha (66), Sharman for Hartley (69), Mercey for Mujati (66), Sorenson for Day (77), Easter for Wilson (62). Sin Bin: Mujati (26), Dowson (59).