EVEN WITH THE clock gone red and the score 30 – 31.
Even after Dan Biggar had showed Baltic veins in Saharan heat, and even when Richard Fussell kicked the ball out, it was difficult to imagine Leinster losing.
It was only when Shane Williams traversed the pitch, a lone man carrying the black flag of his club, that the reality hit home: there had been two teams in this final.
The result still sticks in the craw. It haunts Leinster like the yang to their Heineken Cup ying. Joe Schmidt brought it up again after the loss in Clermont, saying ‘the great thing about sport is – unless it’s a Pr012 final - you have a chance to turn it around the next week.’
In Twickenham the eastern province delivered upon everyone’s expectations and confirmed themselves as the best club side in Europe for the second year in a row.
There was barely time to celebrate.
Leinster had gone into this final in each of the previous two seasons – one at home, one away – and lost. They weren’t going to hope that third time would be a charm, they were going to make damn sure. The morning after returning from London, many medal-laden men would be found in a voluntary recovery session rather than sleeping off a hangover.
History beckoned. A “dynasty” was to be created.
Saturday arrived with Dublin 4 bathed in brilliant blazing sunshine. Ideal conditions for a victorious homecoming parade.
Slowly, the home crowd ambled to the RDS. Sunglasses or a hand perched above the brow was the fashion of the day. This ‘grand final’ had all the ambiance of a garden fete, until the blues bunched under the grandstand and set off on the pre-match team run that turns mere spectators into a roaring bloodthirsty mob.
All the while, the Neath-Swansea Ospreys will have been stewing. Here was a team who had beaten Leinster to win this competition on this very ground in 2010. This was a team who had gone five games in 18 months without defeat to these champions of Europe, and this was a team containing the Shane Williams – who we could honour the man’s iconic status by calling him simply, Shane.
Yet the perception lingered, from all bar the home side, that today the Welsh were just here to provide paper for the Leinster legend to be written. The Ospreys were venomous in defence of their gain-line, committing minimal men to first half rucks and meeting Leinster ball-carriers before they could build a head of steam.
6-3 down Leinster finally made the breakthrough after Leo Cullen spun the ball right to Jonathan Sexton with a penalty advantage in the offing. The blues would stream back to the left wing were Sean Cronin crashed through to send the bare arms in the Simmonscourt end punching the air.
Punch and counter-punch: The gap was back to one, but just 30 seconds later Leinster’s restart worked to perfection with Isa Nacewa leaping to take Sexton’s lob almost in full stride on his way over the line.
Tommy Bowe, in his last day as an Osprey was interviewed by S4c in the stand. His side trailed 17-9. He didn’t look like a man holding too much hope for a comeback.
Then the scrums came.
In all, from minute 37 to 44 there were eight of them on the Leinster five-metre line.
Heinke Van der Merwe was lost to the sin bin after three set-pieces. The team and crowd becoming a single entity at the Alamo. They wanted this title bad.
With pressure mounting, Jack McGrath would defend the next four. On the eighth he would win the penalty to signal half time.
This was how finals are won. This was it, third time lucky.
Just 80 seconds and eight phases of the second half passed before the lead was down to one again. The 14 men drifted backwards, Brian O’Driscoll went high on Joe Bearman and he offloaded to Ashley Beck on a brilliant angled run across the posts and the line.
This was no tale of momentum shifting, these were two teams giving everything they had, desperately going blow for blow. Two more penalties put the home side back in control before Shane Williams dodged, weaved and crashed his way to the left corner in the 59th minute.
Now it was intense. It was a breathless, frantic shootout in unbearable heat.
‘ISA, ISA, ISA’.… Leinster had landed another blow through their own superstar on the left wing.
It was not a knock-out punch, though. Instead it would be the last thing the kings of Europe could celebrate for many months. Ospreys knew they had taken some excellent shots and yet they were still in the game, feeling an extra burst of energy that only a two-week build up can bring.
Nathan White brought his Leinster career to an inglorious end with a yellow card from a 72nd minute scrum Even with the gap down to six the home side powered forward.
Now, you sensed, Leinster would end the notion of this being a piece of incredible theater. They were set up to pick and drive the six minutes to a double. Instead, Sean Cronin dummied a pass to Dominic Ryan and the young flanker was penalised for crossing.
Shane’s last score in competitive rugby was typical of him: He took the ball up right of the posts, 10 metres from the line. The diminutive 35-year-old dummied to pass once and powered directly at Sexton before wrestling Rob Kearney on his way over the try-line.
Two minutes to go.
Even after Biggar had used the clock at the back of Bewleys Hotel as a target for the pressure conversion, with the ball in Leinster’s hands it seemed impossible that they could end this season in defeat. In the stands, Mike Ross couldn’t bear to watch, he hadn’t expected any more possession, but Kahn Fotuali’i attempted one last carry and knocked on.
This was going to be it.
The ultimate crescendo to an incredible season. A season in which Munster had pounded the door of Northampton until Ronan O’Gara found a sublime a drop-goal to by-pass it. O’Driscoll carried the play across half way and for a few frantic phases Sexton looked destined to guild his own legacy under pressure… the white jerseys turned the ball over and popped our daydream like a bubble.
Alun Wyn Jones performed his post-match captaincy duty like a man who had just sacked Rome. As he and Steve Tandy spoke to the gathered press, the lock Jones peeled off strip after strip of tape and tossed it to one side. Once he was finished swigging from a can, it followed onto the heap. He had no energy reserved for pleasantries.
Shane Williams was not so uncouth, his fatigue kept him motionless in a chair, unmoved by talk of an end to an era or even Jones’ demand of ‘two more years’.
The tank was empty. He hadn’t just finished as a winner. He had been the difference in a 30-31 classic.