Leinster created another historic moment for Irish rugby at the Millennium Stadium as a spellbinding second half comeback saw them become Heineken Cup champions for the second time in three years.
Out-half Jonathan Sexton took on the mantle of man-of-the-match, showing great poise and scoring ability as Leinster came from 22-6 down at half-time.
His 28 points were founded on some excellent build-up work from his team-mates, with the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Eoin Reddan, Nathan Hines and Sean O’Brien helping Joe Schmidt’s men get on top in a high-intensity second half.
Hines crossed for a deserved try, Leinster’s third, just past the hour mark which gave them a 33-22 buffer and a shellshocked Northampton team were unable to respond.
The victory marks Leinster’s second European title and the fourth Irish win in the last six years. There is added significance in the fact that Connacht have now qualified for next season’s Heineken Cup by virtue of their provincial colleagues’ success in Cardiff.
There was a great atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium as these two former tournament winners locked horns in an Anglo-Irish decider.
Ex-Leinsterman James Downey helped Saints make a strong start which led to Phil Dowson crossing for an early converted try. Calum Clark’s angled run created space and his one-handed pass put Dowson over in the left corner.
Sexton got Leinster off the mark with a 14th minute penalty, rewarding Jamie Heaslip and O’Brien for some good foraging in midfield.
Stephen Myler punished a scrum infringement to make it 10-3 to Northampton, before a Shane Horgan and O’Brien-inspired break almost led to a try for O’Driscoll. A well-timed tackle from Ben Foden denied the Ireland captain.
Northampton prop Brian Mujati was sin-binned for pulling Cian Healy back off the ball, but the English side had the upper hand in the scrum – they won one against the head in Leinster’s 22 and full-back Foden managed to score out wide.
Myler added the extras and although Sexton landed his second penalty, Saints had the final say of the first half when captain Dylan Hartley wrestled his way over from close range.
16 points adrift at the break, Leinster had to regroup quickly and come out firing in the second half. They did just that, tearing into Saints on the resumption. Four minutes in, O’Driscoll made the initial incision for Sexton to dart over on the right for a seven-pointer.
Television match official Giulio De Santis then ruled that Gordon D’Arcy had been held up, but just moments later Heaslip set up Sexton for his second converted try – this time closer to the posts.
The Leinster players and fans were visibly lifted by these scores as they upped the intensity and began to dominate in the set piece and the loose. After a powerful scrum from his forwards, Sexton’s 57th-minute penalty edged the men in blue ahead for the first time at 23-22.
The momentum was clearly with Leo Cullen and his team-mates now. Dowson was promptly sin-binned for infringing close to his try-line and Sexton converted the resulting penalty.
Maintaining their push for more tries, Hines started a breathtaking move involving backs and forwards which ended with the Scotland lock driving over for Leinster’s third touchdown.
There was some superb support play from Richardt Strauss and Cullen in the build-up, and Sexton tagged on the conversion for a 33-22 scoreline.
Sexton was off target with a penalty from distance and further try-scoring chances were missed but Leinster, with all of their replacements on the pitch, held their dominance right to the final whistle.
Leo Cullen, the fourth player to captain two Heineken Cup-winning teams, said afterwards: “When you are 16 points down with only half the game played the shackles are off and you know you have to go out there and play as well as you know you can.
“We hadn’t done that in the first half. We didn’t hang onto the ball and we knew we had to combat the Saints scrum. We did both in the second half and they were the differences in the end.”