Brian O'Driscoll's rugby season went from the sublime to the sensational last night. Just weeks after leading Ireland to a coveted Grand Slam, O'Driscoll proudly marched his men into the Heineken Cup final. The fact that he did it at the expense of the muddled, mystified men of Munster, the defending champions, will have tasted oh so sweet. Overlooked for the Lions captaincy in South Africa? Try reminding O'Driscoll of that this morning.
Somehow, against all the odds and everyone's expectation, the city boys of Leinster put away the earthy, steely competitors from Munster who have made their name synonymous with the Heineken Cup. Two converted tries in the first 20 minutes after half-time, by Luke Fitzgerald and then a brilliant 70-metre intercept try by O'Driscoll, from Ronan O'Gara's pass, settled it. Not even Munster could come back from that, especially against the blue blanket of Leinster's wondrous defence.
Leinster, written off by just about all of Ireland, bared teeth we hardly knew they possessed. Munster reputations – they had seven proud new Lions on the field against Leinster's three – counted for nothing as their opponents tore into them. Leinster's back row played a huge part, with Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip all outstanding.
Leo Cullen, the Leinster captain, had admitted his side were desperate to get a good start and take their opportunities to try to unsettle the defending champions. That desperation translated into giving the Argentine fly-half Felipe Contepomi an ambitious kick at goal from 51 metres after only four minutes, risking the jeers when his kick went miles wide.
But it also meant Leinster showing they were not there to be pushed around. Gordon D'Arcy hit Keith Earls in the face after an innocuous tackle by Munster's youngest Lion and that set off a general handbags-at-dawn show. The Welsh referee Nigel Owens warned both captains but there was no mistaking Leinster's fierce intent. They were not there just to make up the numbers this time, as it had seemed when the sides met in the Heineken semi-final in 2006.
Contepomi looked as nervous as a kitten early on, slicing one clearance kick horribly but he calmed his nerves by sending a soaring drop goal through the Munster posts to give Leinster an early lead.
But Leinster, who had already revealed a couple of huge defensive holes, then erred. The Munster wing Ian Dowling tried to chip the flat defence and was brutally taken out by the Leinster prop Cian Healy. It earned Healy a yellow card and O'Gara duly slammed over the 40-metre penalty to level the scores.
Leinster had clearly chosen to attack O'Gara's defensive frailties and Contepomi stormed past him with one powerful early run. But Leinster, despite some clever probing kicks that took them deep into the Munster 22 by O'Driscoll and the Fijian full-back Isa Nacewa, were guilty of disciplinary errors that eased their pressure.
When Munster slaughtered Leinster 30-6 at Lansdowne Road three years ago, they did not have to contend with the Australian international Rocky Elsom in the Leinster back row. The Wallaby underlined the point by tearing straight downfield towards the Munster posts. Earls stood firm and grounded him but at the ruck, Munster were offside.
Alas, Contepomi damaged his left knee attempting a sidestep and was helped off. Jonathan Sexton, his replacement, slotted the penalty to restore Leinster's lead.
But if Leinster were making life hard for the champions with their feisty, combative play on the gain line, they also had plenty to offer out wide. They scored a fabulous try after 30 minutes fit to grace this magnificent stage. From first-phase line-out ball, O'Driscoll delayed his pass before releasing Nacewa through a gap and he swept downfield before passing out to Gordon D'Arcy. Earls tap-tackled him near the line but it was too late, the Leinster centre's momentum took him over. Sexton could not convert but Leinster had an 11-3 lead, a fabulous return for a fiery first half-hour.
Elsom spoiled it by tugging Doug Howlett's shirt as the wing tried to get away, giving O'Gara a simple penalty chance to reduce the lead by half-time.
Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell [capt], A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; F Contepomi (J Sexton, 26), C Whitaker; C Healy, B Jackman, S Wright, L Cullen (capt), M O'Kelly, R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
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