At half-time in the 2011 European final Leinster were 22-6 adrift against a Northampton Saints that had been intense in the scrum and ferocious at the ruck.
Then in stepped Jonathan Sexton – first with a galvanising half-time team-talk, then with a truly game-changing performance.
As four-time Guinness PRO12 champions Leinster prepare to take on Northampton in the European Rugby Champions Cup on Friday, we relive one of the great European finals and a spectacular individual display.
‘A man possessed’:
Brian O’Driscoll – so long the standard-bearer for Leinster and Ireland – applauded Sexton’s role in the aftermath.
“We had some choice words at half-time and Sexton was phenomenal in the dressing room, he was a man possessed,” the 141-cap Ireland international said.
“He said this game would be remembered if we came back and we will remember this for a long time.”
First half to forget:
Soane Tongaʻuiha, Brian Mujati and Dylan Hartley’s scrummaging performance was the foundation of a thunderous first-half effort from Jim Mallinder’s side
Despite losing out to Leicester Tigers in a frighteningly physical semi-final a week earlier, they showed no signs of weariness as they applied pressure onto Leinster.
Roger Wilson, Paul Diggin and Lee Dickson broke from the back of a dominant Saints scrum to send Phil Dowson crashing over, with Stephen Myler converting and adding a penalty moments later to cancel out Sexton’s first three-pointer.
A first glimpse of the Leinster threat to come was dampened by Ben Foden – his superb covering tackle denying what looked like a certain O’Driscoll score.
Prop Mujati found himself in the sin bin for holding back Cian Healy, but that seemed only to spur Saints on as they continued to control the set-piece with seven men, prop Tom Mercey temporarily replacing Calum Clark.
Foden continued a distinguished half by rounding O’Driscoll for Saints’ second score, moving them 17-3 ahead with just over half an hour gone.
Sexton’s penalty edged Leinster closer, but Hartley was driven over for a third try and the game looked to be more or less over.
The Team Talk:
Ireland No. 10 Sexton admitted after the game that memories of Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League triumph – when they came from 3-0 down to defeat AC Milan – had prompted his rousing message at the break.
Just as it was Steven Gerrard’s hour in Istanbul, it was Sexton’s in Cardiff as he masterminded 28 unanswered second-half points in front of 72,456 people in Cardiff.
“We were shellshocked and needed leaders. I said comebacks happen in finals – I knew we could come back,” he explained after the game.
“I watch a lot of sport and that Liverpool game just stuck in my mind for some reason.
“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 shell-shocked and needed half-time. We regrouped. We had to believe and we took our chances.”
Second half to remember:
O’Driscoll reacted sharply to a loose ball just after the break, very nearly sending over Jamie Heaslip and Isa Nacewa, but it was Sexton who went over.
The rub of the green had shifted in Leinster’s favour as Sexton’s conversion bounced off the post and over the bar.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) December 7, 2016
Gordon D’Arcy was denied by the TMO moments later, but it was a brief reprieve for Saints, Leinster’s fly-half going over again for a converted try on 53 minutes.
His third penalty four minutes later completed the reversal as Leo Cullen’s side moved ahead for the first time in the game, before Sexton’s accurate kicking again punished a Saints infringement minutes later.
Nathan Hines barrelled over for a try that vanquished any Northampton hope and despite a late miss from the tee, Sexton’s turnaround was complete and Leinster had their second European crown in three years.
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