Ben Foden, the player who did more than anyone to keep Northampton afloat as they sank beneath the Leinster waves in the second half of Saturday's magnificent contest, made his feelings known afterwards by saying: "This is 150 per cent the worst I've ever felt after a game of rugby." In an age of football managers and their seven-figure pronouncements – "We're a million per cent determined to stay up," and so on – this seemed something of an understatement. For a completely accurate assessment of the depth of the Midlanders' misery, Phil Dowson was the man.
Dowson is one of rugby's Trojans: he may not be Richie McCaw but he works as hard as anyone, and far harder than most. The former Newcastle captain was at his most industrious on Saturday: he carried, he tackled, he grappled, he wrestled and – glory of glories – he scored. The flanker's opening try after six minutes was due reward for two seasons of unstinting effort, and the expression on his face was one of purest joy.
Yet his expression afterwards was that of a man who had just phoned the Samaritans and found the line engaged. Why? Because he blamed himself for his side's defeat. With the Dubliners on the charge and the two teams separated by only a single point, Dowson tried to pilfer some ruck ball as Lee Dickson halted Brian O'Driscoll a couple of metres short of the Northampton line and was pointed towards the sin bin. His harshest critic would not have condemned him, for the Irishmen would surely have scored off recycled ball, but Dowson was unshakeable in his belief that he had messed up.
"When you're on the receiving end of a surge like that and you lose a man for 10 minutes, it's not the best," he said. "Every breakdown situation is different, and you have to weigh things up depending on the circumstances. In this case, we were defending close to our line and I made the decision to go for the ball. It turned out to be a poor decision." Was the referee correct? "I haven't seen the replay," Dowson responded, in a tone that suggested he would rather stick pins in his eyes than seek out the footage. "He said, 'In the side', and I couldn't argue."
In the opening period, with the Northampton tight forwards ruling the roost at close quarters, Dowson and his fellow back-rowers were in clover. At the break, three things happened, all of them in the opposition dressing room and all of them deeply damaging to the English club's cause.
First, the Leinster scrum coach Greg Feek ordered his players to hold the Northampton scrummagers down at the set-piece, rather than allow them to drive upwards. Secondly, the stand-off Jonathan Sexton set an emotional charge running through his colleagues with an up-and-at-'em speech of considerable force. And thirdly, the Leinster coach Joe Schmidt withdrew Kevin McLaughlin from his loose combination and replaced him with a specialist breakaway in Shane Jennings.
"I don't know whether that was the sole reason for the momentum change, but it played a part," acknowledged Dowson, who found life far more awkward as a result of the tactical switch. "You have to credit Leinster with a huge amount of character. We should have kept the choke-hold on them, but couldn't find a way of doing it. My departure didn't help. There are some lessons we have to learn, that's for sure."
There is no reason to think Northampton will not learn those lessons quickly and feature strongly in the race for silverware next season, although World Cup calls forward and aft will cramp their style in the first two months of the campaign. "This is raw, painful and tough to take," said their director of rugby, Jim Mallinder. "But, in time, we'll reflect on it and be stronger as a result."