Up next on our countdown of the greatest Heineken Cup sides of all time is the Leinster team of 2009.
Entering the summer of 2008, Leinster rugby were celebrating their second Celtic League title, but their celebrations were kept in check by an imposing presence in the south of the country.
Despite winning their domestic league, Munster’s Heineken Cup final triumph over Toulouse meant that the Lions were not even seen as the best team in their own country. Munster had single handedly flown the flag for Irish clubs in Europe that season, with neither Ulster nor Leinster managing to progress from their Heineken Cup pools.
Crushing away defeats to Edinburgh, Leicester and Toulouse, three games in which Leinster failed to score a try, were enough to consign Leinster to third place in their group and yet another humiliating exit. Throughout Europe Leinster were seen as a soft touch.
Despite an exciting backline that included Brian O’ Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy and Denis Hickie, the feeling was that their pack had a decidedly powderpuff side, and that in Felipe Contepomi, they possessed a hugely talented but equally mercurial out-half.
Recognising the fact that European success was as far away as ever, and also that O’Driscoll and co. deserved the helping hand that would enable them to challenge Munster, the Leinster branch invested heavily in southern hemisphere talent in that summer of 2008.
World cup winner CJ Van Der Linde was added to the front row, to make the number 1 jersey his own, but also to take under his wing a home grown prospect by the name of Cian Healy, who Leinster had high hopes for.
The biggest news to emanate from Dublin 4 that summer, however, concerned the signing of Australian international flanker Rocky Elsom. Wanting to try his hand at Heineken Cup rugby, Elsom had organised an early release from his Waratah and Australian contract in order to spend one year in Europe, and Leinster pulled off a massive coup in persuading him that Dublin was the best destination for him.
Finally, under the radar, Leinster added an unknown Fijian utility back by the name of Isa Nacewa, as back 3 cover and also to provide competition for the injury prone Contepomi and the unproven Jonathan Sexton at out-half.
These new signings, added to an already world class backline, brought huge excitement to Leinster fans, who were also closely monitoring the progress of an outstanding group of academy players such as Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, who were only beginning to establish themselves in the first team.
Enthusiasm was dampened somewhat, however, by the announcement of Leinster’s Heineken cup group, with London Wasps especially providing serious opposition, and being led by a top quality pack, exactly the sort of team Leinster struggled against. Castres would also provide a difficult trip to the south of France and Leinster’s bogey team, Edinburgh, completed the group.
Michael Cheika’s side travelled to Murrayfield for the opening game, and got their campaign off to the best possible start, with a bonus point try allowing them to take revenge for the previous year’s defeat in the same stadium, and almost equally important it allowed Elsom and Van Der Linde to make their competition debuts.
It was round two, however, where Leinster laid down a real marker.
Wasps left the RDS after a 6-try, 41-11 defeat. Two tries from O’Driscoll along with efforts from Kearney and Fitzgerald were encouraging but a typical bulldozing effort from Elsom to ensure his second of the season was what really got the crowd going.
An injury to Contepomi caused some concern ahead of the visit of Castres to Dublin, as Sexton had yet to truly gain the trust of the home crowd. Another dominant performance ensured the young 10 was never under any real pressure, with anther O’Driscoll try and a typically all-action performance from a young Sean O’Brien ensuring a 33-3 victory. Sexton went 5/5 with his kicks and teams around Europe began to take notice.
The winning run however, came to a dramatic end in the return game in Castres, where Sexton was trusted to start ahead of a Contepomi that was lacking match fitness. Despite scoring a try, the young Dubliner struggled to control the game, and ultimately indiscipline cost Leinster as six penalties gave Castres an 18-15 victory. Next up was a trip to Twickenham to face a resurgent Wasps, and Sexton’s continued struggles at Celtic League level led to a reshuffle of the Leinster backs, with Nacewa coming in at 10.
Contepomi’s move to center resulted in the dropping of Gordon D’Arcy, and Leinster struggled in the absence of the Wexford man’s direct running. Despite a disjointed performance, the boot of Contepomi allied with a strong defensive performance led by Elsom and Malcolm O’Kelly gained a crucial losing bonus point in a 19-12 defeat, which kept their destiny in their own hands.
All Leinster had to do to progress was defeat their old enemy Edinburgh.
Nacewa remained at out half, and again Leinster failed to fire, but again Elsom inspired a defence that was developing into the competition’s most miserly, and 4 Contepomi kicks ensured a 12-3 victory and progression. Chris Keane provided half back cover off the bench as Sexton slipped further off the first team radar.
Their blip against Castres and Wasps meant a poor ranking and a trip to the Stoop to face Harlequins, in what would become one of the most famous games in Heineken Cup history. The “Bloodgate” scandal as it has become known would roll on long after the conclusion of that year’s tournament, as with Leinster winning by 6 points to 5, Harlequins’ Tom Williams faked a blood injury to allow drop goal specialist Nick Evans to return to the action despite being substituted earlier.
What the controversy overshadows however, is one of the supreme defensive performances in the tournament’s history, as Leinster clung onto their one-point lead for dear life. The Lions came of age in a game that all previous incarnations of the blue jersey would have lost. Again Elsom was to the fore as the heroic effort set up another semi-final clash with Munster.
By the time 82,000 people had squeezed into Croke park for that All-Irish clash, Sexton had regained his place on the bench, and the backline reshuffling had finally settled down with Nacewa instated to his best position at full back, and Rob Kearney dropping to the bench.
Tournament favourites Munster rolled into Dublin with all the confidence of two-time winners, and were expected to strangle the life out of Leinster in the same way as they had three years previously. Contepomi was in no mood to be bullied again however, and started the game in flying form, kicking a 15th minute drop-goal and generally keeping Leinster in the positions where they wanted the game played.
That is, until the 25th minute, when disaster struck, as a Leinster penalty at the breakdown allowed the players to scatter and reveal the Argentine playmaker prone on the ground. The groans of the crowd were not the sound that Sexton would have wished to enter the fray to, but the Dubliner stepped up admirably and slotted the difficult kick before setting up a Gordon D’Arcy try to help his side to an 11-6 lead at the break.
Further tries from Luke Fitzgerald and an O’Driscoll intercept meant Leinster carried the day and entered their first Heineken Cup final, and having played a role in 2 of the tries, Sexton finally looked like the player Cheika had hoped he would mature into.
In that final at Murrayfield, they faced Leicester Tigers, fresh from their victory over Cardiff in the only penalty shoot out that the Heineken Cup would ever see. Final veterans Leicester, led by Geordan Murphy and Martin Castrogiovanni would have hoped to play on the nerves of Leinster in their first ever decider , but an early O’Driscoll drop goal calmed any frayed nerves, as their twin talismans O’Driscoll and Elsom grew into the game and took the battle to Leicester.
Sexton epitomised the burgeoning confidence in the team when the ball found its way to him after a loose kick by Sam Vesty. Receiving the ball inside inside his own half, Sexton set himself and kicked a monster drop goal from the halfway line for a 6-3 lead.
In a forward dominated match, Heaslip and Ben Woods exchanged tries and as a topsy-turvy second half entered its final quarter, the teams were locked at 16-16. The last 20 minutes were the ultimate stage for leaders to come to the fore, and it was in this endgame that Elsom and Leo Cullen did their best work, as Leinster held resolute and carved out one final opportunity for Sexton with ten minutes to play.
Having already been fast tracked to household name almost overnight after years of struggle, Sexton now had the chance to write his name into Irish rugby folklore, and his wobbly kick from just outside the 22 ensured he did as he gave his side a three-point lead they would bravely hold for the final 10 minutes to ensure the trophy remained in Ireland.
In terms of grit and determination, the Leinster team of 2009 certainly ranks highly among Heineken Cup champions. Their quarter-final and final victories showed an incredible will to win stemming from years of being written off and mocked. They do rank outside the Top 5, however, mainly because many of their bigger names had not yet developed into the star players we know today, such as Heaslip, Kearney and Sexton, all of whom were finding their feet at this level.
Their topsy turvy performance in the pool stage also counted against them in comparison to later Irish winners as the feeling was there all season that disaster could be just around the corner, before a wave of momentum and determination dragged them through the knock-out rounds.
That said in Elsom and the 2009 vintage of O’Driscoll they possessed two of the best players ever to play in the competition and for that reason, as well as ending their hoodoo in such an emphatic way, they deserve their place on this list.
2009 Leinster Team For The Heineken Cup Final
15 – Isa Nacewa
14 – Shane Horgan
13 – Brian O’Driscoll
12 – Gordon D’Arcy
11 – Luke Fitzgerald
10 – Jonathan Sexton
9 – Chris Whitaker
8 – Jamie Heaslip
7 – Shane Jennings
6 – Rocky Elsom
5 – Malcolm O’Kelly
4 – Leo Cullen (c)
3 – Stan Wright
2 – Bernard Jackman
1 – Cian Healy
16 – John Fogarty
17 – Ronan McCormack
18 – Devin Toner
19 – Sean O’Brien
20 – Simon Keogh
21 – Rob Kearney
22 – Girvan Dempsey
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.