This is the first in a series of articles celebrating the classic rugby moments that capture the essence of the gentleman’s game. Sponsored by Royall Lyme, each blog will focus on a player, team, coach, try or game that reflects the core values of the sport.
We kick off with a classic final from the top competition in European club rugby, The Heineken Cup.
The Cup’s future is currently in doubt, following the failure of the competing clubs to reach agreement on qualification and revenue share. While the competition may continue in name only for one more season, it is unlikely that English clubs will feature.
The impact on the development of the game could be far reaching but one thing is for sure, it will deprive fans of some great contests like our first Rugby Classic game, the 2011 Heineken Cup Final between Leinster and Northampton Saints.
The Game of Two Halves
The teams met at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, in front of a 72,000 crowd. Both Leinster and Northampton Saints saw off the challenges of French sides in hard fought semi-finals. Going into the 2011 Heineken Cup final, Leinster had the edge in terms of previous success in the competition, having won the title in 2009 against Northampton’s local rivals Leicester Tigers. The Saints had enjoyed their own success in the European Challenge Cup in the same year. It was expected to be close so no one could have predicted how the game played out. In all senses it was a game of two halves.
The first half was all Northampton who used their physical dominance to control the game. The Leinster pack uncharacteristically looked beaten and conceded penalties form the scrums and the side struggled to make any impact. Two penalties from Ireland fly-half, Jonathan Sexton proved to be Leinster’s only points in the first half, in response to Northampton’s 3 tries, 2 conversions and a penalty. Even when down to 14 men after Brian Mujati’s yellow card for pulling Cian Healy the Saints kept scoring and adding to their lead.
Half time score: Leinster 6 – Northampton 22
The game appeared over. A team coming back from such a deficit at half time, could it really happen? It could and it did.
Leinster’s comeback in the second half was one of those rare moments in sport when the impossible unfolded. The rugby that the Irish team played in those 40 minutes showed great discipline and teamwork, two of rugby’s core values. They played like defeat wasn’t an option and scored 27 unanswered points to claim the title as European Champions 2011.
Final score: Leinster 33 – Northampton 22
Just how was such an incredible turnaround achieved? Rugby is about teamwork both on and off the pitch and every part of the Leinster set-up played their part to win that game.
A Winning Strategy
Coach Joe Schmidt and his staff had done their homework and knew that Northampton would start the game at a ferocious pace, using the strength of their pack to win the set piece and give their backs a platform to attack from. His strategy for the game was based on turning this opponents’ strength into a weakness. In order for this game plan to be successful, all of the players had to believe in it and keep believing, even when they were behind by 16 points.
In the first half you can hear the commentator in the video explain how badly the Leinster pack appeared to be performing in the scrum. They absorbed the pressure from the Saints as best they could, but the Northampton pack was bigger and stronger in the first 40 minutes and battered their Leinster counterparts. Northampton Saints were known as a very forwards orientated team and always looked to build phase play through solid set piece foundations. It is physically and mentally exhausting to succumb to a more powerful opposition pack in scrums and lineouts. These were Northampton’s tactics, wear Leinster down by physically dominating them up front.
Northampton’s lineouts had proved vital in winning games, so Leinster’s strategy was to deny them the opportunity to exploit this effective tactic. When Leinster fly-half Jonny Sexton and his teammates kicked to clear their lines, they consistently kept the ball in play. This meant Northampton had very few lineouts and therefore were unable to construct any meaningful threats from the set piece. Leinster’s astute tactic of keeping the ball in play ensured that the Saints’ forwards pack was constantly moved around the field. The objective was to tire them out. In contrast, Leinster’s own lineouts were very effective. The Irish side continually moved the ball immediately out to their back line to Sexton, forcing the big Northampton pack to cover a lot more ground. The result: fatigue setting in at half time for the Saints pack and a colossal threat diminished.
Coach Schmidt also deployed his substitutions to good effect, most notably the introduction of Ireland flanker Shane Jennings at half time. Jennings proved to be extremely destructive at the breakdown, either slowing the ball down and thereby allowing his team to organize their defense or stealing Northampton’s possession and forcing a turnover.
Schmidt enjoyed more success with Leinster before taking control of Ireland in 2013.
— Inpho Photography (@Inphosports) November 9, 2013
Jonny Sexton was awarded Man of the Match for his performance and the 28 points he scored on the pitch but he was equally effective off the field.
Leinster really had no right to get back into the game after trailing by more three tries. If Northampton scored the first points in the second half, I believe they would have gone on to win the game. However, the half time break allowed the players to catch their breath and collect their thoughts.
It was during this 10 minute rest period where Leinster fly-half Sexton gathered his teammates and demanded more from them. There was not one piece of doubt in his head that Leinster could win the game. He instilled that belief amongst his team by drawing comparisons to the European Champions League soccer match between Liverpool and A.C. Milan in 2005. Sexton recalled how Liverpool were down and out of that game and went into half time 3-0 down. Not many teams come back from that score line but Liverpool did and went on to win the Cup. Sexton took great confidence from that game and invited his teammates to believe they could win the Heineken Cup.
Having played many times with Jonny I know the strong leader he can be. I have no doubt it was an inspirational half time talk and encouraged Leinster to play like men possessed for the second half of the game.
Jonny Sexton left Leinster in 2013 after a double winning season to join Racing Metro but first a summer that saw him play a key role for the Lions winning squad in Australia.
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 10, 2013
Leinster employed a risky strategy that had to play out over the 80 minutes. It was based on the fitness levels of the Leinster players being greater than their opponents. While weight and strength might have been in Northampton’s favour on paper, endurance was the Irish club’s secret weapon.
They had to remain patient and stick to the plan if it was to work. It was strength of mind and body that got them the win.
Like the Rumble in the Jungle, Foreman v Ali boxing match in 1974. Foreman threw everything he could at Ali who took the punches for 8 rounds non-stop. Foreman eventually ran out of steam and hit the canvas following a barrage of Ali’s punches. Supreme levels of fitness are required for any champion and the Leinster team proved to be champions that day.
— The Texanist (@thetexanist) October 31, 2013
The Legacy of Winning
Games like the 2011 Heineken Cup final leave a legacy, not just for the fans but for the players who carved out a victory against the odds.
Flash forward three years and Leinster have another Heineken Cup victory to their name, another European top honour with an Amlin Cup title and a Celtic League title. Winning breeds winning and that comeback to claim their second Heineken Cup title certainly did much to prove the Dublin side’s credentials at the top level of the European game.
Leinster have progressed to the last eight in this year’s Heineken competition but there will not be a repeat of the epic final against Northampton after the Saints failed to qualify for the quarter finals. If the Heineken Cup is to disappear from the schedule it will end with record attendances for the pool stages and six of the eight quarter finalists being previous winners of the Cup. Ironic that it has never been stronger, just as the axe looks set to fall on what has been a thrilling competition.
“Football (soccer) is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians, rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen” – Oscar Wilde.
Rugby has produced astonishing individual athletes, seemingly unbeatable teams and classic matchups. What is your Rugby Classic game? Who do you think should feature in the Royall Lyme Rugby Classics blogs?
Tweet me your thoughts @LineoutCoach #rugbyclassic or simply leave a comment below.
Read the Royall Lyme Rugby Classics Series
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Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyMag.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com