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Northampton produced a performance of grit and courage to raise the Heineken Cup – the first trophy in their 120-year history.
The scenes at the end will go down in rugby folklore, with supporters and replacements from both sides piling on to the pitch as the teams stood defiantly in separate circles in the middle.
The new European Champions linked arms and cavorted in boundless joy while bridesmaids Munster bowed their heads in silent contemplation.
Seconds earlier Budge Pountney had made a solitary pilgrimage to shake the hands of each Munster player while his colleagues celebrated wildly. Pountney’s gesture was typical of the occasion. The match might not have been out of the top drawer but the sportsmanship and commitment were exemplary.
Northampton had no right to start and finish as they did. For the initial 20 minutes of the first half and the last 10 of the second they took the game to Munster in a series of thunderous battles.
Saints captain Pat Lam was the driving force in the early stages. Lam, who has suffered with a problematic shoulder in recent weeks, was always at the forefront of Northampton’s early attacks but Northampton were equally well served by Pountney and Don Mackinnon. The back row were the principal reason why Northampton prospered.
Equally impressive was Tim Rodber, his work at the line-out was crucial and it was his stealing of two Munster throws midway through the second half which enabled Northampton to lift a Munster siege.
Behind the scrum Ben Cohen and Allan Bateman were the pick of the Northampton backs. Cohen was always industrious, always thrusting at the heart of Munster tacklers and Bateman was the organising genius behind Northampton’s defence.
Munster were shattered at the end. They had the satisfaction of scoring the only try and led 8-6 at half-time but they were unable to match the might of the Northampton pack and this is where they lost the game. From the first scrum the Northampton front row had their opposite numbers in trouble and, though John Langford was a beacon in the line-out, Munster’s front five were completely eclipsed.
The most staggering statistic of the match, after 34 minutes, showed Northampton had won 16 pieces of possession to Munster’s two in their opponents’ 22. It showed Northampton’s superiority in terms of possession and territory yet the scoreboard read 8-3 to Munster.
Northampton’s problem was that they were unable to make the most of their advantage and as the match wore on there seemed every chance of Northampton falling at the last hurdle, as they have so often in the past. Munster were partly responsible for Northampton’s inability to score tries. The tackling of Anthony Foley, David Wallace and both centres kept them in the hunt. But, even with Keith Wood rousing himself and the crowd with a few of his trademark runs, Munster did not have the appropriate firepower to take the game to Northampton.
Nevertheless, Munster got themselves to within a kick of glory and if O’Gara had succeeded with a penalty one minute from time it would have been a huge travesty.
Referee Joel Dumé failed to spot a Munster knock-on when Jason Holland looped his fellow centre Mike Mullins. Allowed to retain possession, Munster won a penalty just outside Northampton’s 22 but O’Gara’s kick shaved the left-hand post. It completed a wretched kicking afternoon for O’Gara, who missed all four of his shots at goal including the conversion of Wallace’s try.
That score was Munster’s finest moment. Wood had stormed down the right-hand side before the ball was whipped left across the face of the Northampton posts. Two intelligent miss-passes by O’Gara to Holland and by Dominic Crotty to Wallace allowed the flanker to run round and through Bateman’s despairing tackle.
Munster led 8-3 but from that point on they were pegged back by Paul Grayson’s goal-kicking. Grayson was wide with his last two penalties but his three successful kicks gave Northampton the one-point cushion which was all they needed.
Grayson’s ability to hang on never fails to amaze. He was out of position at full-back and his kicking out of hand and general play was well below standard but his greatest quality is his characteristic of shrugging off indifferent moments to strike when it matters most. And that was true of his team-mates yesterday.
Close to 70,000 people at Twickenham witnessed Munster and Northampton slug it out in an epic final that will live long in the memory.