"Old age takes away from us what we have inherited and gives us what we have earned." If Brian O'Driscoll, the one indisputably great player in modern-day European rugby, had done nothing else during the course of the finest Heineken Cup final in a decade – in the event, he did pretty much everything, ranging from the dramatically good to the desperately poor via the profoundly indifferent – he proved the truth of that maxim. There were any number of reasons why Northampton lost themselves in storm-tossed seas after reaching the mid-point of the contest with the harbour in clear view, but O'Driscoll was the rock on which they foundered.
Back in 2009, when Leinster first laid hands on this most sought-after of trophies, the Dubliner had just turned 30 and was beginning to feel the effects of his years. During the second half of the final against Leicester in Edinburgh, he landed splat on his fragile right shoulder while attempting a clearance kick and spent the next minute or so writhing in agony before mooching off to the left wing in the hope of staying out of harm's way while the pain subsided. Needless to say, the ball found its way to him almost immediately, at which point he said "to hell with it", tore into his opponents with complete disregard for his own well-being and won his side the penalty that decided the outcome.
In Cardiff at the weekend, he found himself in greater difficulty still. Two years older, with the orthopaedic scars to show for it, and two years slower – he has, to these eyes at least, lost the snap, crackle and pace with which he was once blessed – the Dubliner started the game so far short of 100 per cent fitness that a lesser figure would have been branded a fool for making himself available to the selectors. The knee injury he had suffered during the Magners League semi-final victory over Ulster eight days previously restricted his movement to such a degree that he went from champion centre to midfield "bum of the month" in the time he took to make horrible mistakes at either end of the field.
Early in the second quarter, the outstanding flanker Sean O'Brien delivered a sugar-sweet pass that gave O'Driscoll a run-in from 25 metres – the kind of "time gentlemen please, that's all for tonight" opportunity he has always maximised with such ruthless efficiency. Not this time. Despite leaving his blocks on the "g" of the bang rather than the "b", the England full-back Ben Foden made up so much ground on his rival that the line was barely threatened. When, some nine minutes later, Foden beat O'Driscoll's limp tackle to score Northampton's second try and open up a 17-6 advantage, embarrassment was etched into the Irishman's features.
More missed tackles – not by O'Driscoll on this occasion, but by his Test colleagues Luke Fitzgerald and Gordon D'Arcy – quickly presented the Midlanders with a third try, finished from the traditional front-rower's distance by Dylan Hartley. Game over, right? Wrong. In the quarter of an hour or so following the resumption, Leinster scored 17 unanswered points to take a lead they would not lose. By way of proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he is the best outside-half in the northern hemisphere, Jonathan Sexton did all the scoring, but it was his elder and better who made it possible by imposing his iron will on events.
Courageous enough to demand possession even though he knew he was having a rough one, he succeeded in forcing the pace, raising the temperature and upping the ante. He was far from perfect in the technical sense, but as an expression of the warrior spirit, this was sensational. Northampton saw him coming, looked into the whites of his eyes... and cracked. "When you say, 'Go to the well, boys', as we had to at half-time, Brian is the one who goes a couple of hundred feet down – the one who goes down deepest," remarked Joe Schmidt, the Leinster coach, when asked to assess O'Driscoll's influence during that crucial period. "Was I confident about picking him? I'm not the most confident sort of bloke at the best of times: I'm always questioning my decisions, wondering whether I've made the right call. But I thought he would give us something just by being out there, and the longer he played, the better he played."
Schmidt also made mention of his front row, who made all the right technical adjustments to their act at scrum time following a torrid 40 minutes against Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati, and positively lavished praise on Sexton, whose 28 points included two excellent tries. "He was one of the people who persuaded me to go to Dublin," said the coach, who was helping push Clermont Auvergne towards a first French domestic title this time last year. "I initially wondered whether driving a team like Leinster was for me, but Jonny said, 'Don't worry about that. If you can give us what we think we need, we'll do the driving'. He's a very assured, very accomplished young man. I never had the luxury of coaching Dan Carter when I was back in New Zealand, so I'm not the best person to ask for a comparison, but I think we can say that Jonny is ... good." By which he meant "exceptional".
One of these fine days, Sexton may be as good as O'Driscoll. The three-tour Lion will not last forever – the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand is certainly his final shot at that particular target – and Leinster, holders of the elite European title for the second time in three years, are beginning to put themselves in a place where they can contemplate doing without him. But as long as he is standing, they will continue to look to him for inspiration. If a man can be so far off his game in a game of this magnitude and still be at the heart of the matter, he must be special. Genius does because genius must? Too right.
Leinster: Tries Sexton 2, Hines. Conversions Sexton 3. Penalties Sexton 4.
Northampton Tries Dowson, Foden. Hartley. Conversions Myler 2. Penalty Myler.
Leinster I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (F McFadden 68), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 77), E Reddan (I Boss 72); C Healy (H Van der Merwe 59), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright 78), M Ross (S Wright 77), L Cullen (capt), N Hines (D Toner 77), K McLaughlin (S Jennings h-t), S O'Brien (K McLaughlin 45-46), J Heaslip.
Northampton B Foden; C Ashton (S Commins 77), J Clarke, J Downey (J Ansbro 66), P Diggin; S Myler (S Geraghty 66), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 66), D Hartley (capt, B Sharman 69), B Mujati (T Mercey 66), C Lawes, C Day (M Sorenson 77), C Clark (Mercey 27-36), P Dowson, R Wilson (M Easter 63-69).
Referee R Poite (France).
Chris Hewett's team of the Heineken Cup
15 Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
Match-winner in the last eight, class act throughout.
14 Maxime Médard (Toulouse)
A rare attacking talent in the grand French tradition.
13 Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster)
Quite brilliant, even when he's playing like a drain.
12 Clément Poitrenaud (Toulouse)
New role, same threat. Pure quality on the ball.
11 Paul Diggin (Northampton)
The campaign's top scorer. Low-profile, high-energy.
10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
Developing into a world-class playmaker.
9 Dimitri Yachvili (Biarritz)
A natural match-winner in a side bereft of pizzazz.
1 Soane Tonga'uiha (Northampton)
Pure box office. A prop worth paying to see.
2 Richardt Strauss (Leinster)
Schalk Brits, eat your heart out. Great hands.
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
The cornerstone of a pack that learnt to fight back.
4 Courtney Lawes (Northampton)
Tough and athletic, one for the hard games.
5 Patricio Albacete (Toulouse)
Still delivering in a pack showing signs of decline.
6 Sean O'Brien (Leinster)
A bull of a ball-carrier. Seriously scary.
7 George Smith (Toulon)
The Wallaby veteran raged against the dying of the light.
8 Joe Van Niekerk (Toulon)
His complete mastery against London Irish said it all.