Defeat puts Leinster under immense pressure
HEINEKEN CUP:Leinster seriously threatened to complete an historic Heineken Cup four-timer for the Irish provinces yesterday, and there was no shame in seeing their 17-game unbeaten run come to an end in Stade Marcel Michelin, where Clermont are now unbeaten in 51 matches. But regrets, they’ll have a few.
Despite something of an injury-enforced, patchwork backline, Leinster were braveness personified in matching Clermont blow for blow in what was another compelling duel between these two heavyweights. As the match developed Leinster generated many kicks at goal as their scrum became more dominant. But unfortunately their lineout creaked which denied them two hard-earned attacking platforms in the final quarter.
Clermont sold the record 17,760 attendance in an hour, such was the interest. All associated with the club had targeted this game from the outset of the season and such is the respect between opposing fans that a home banner welcomed the 800 or so Leinster faithful: “Failte go dti ar gcairde na hEireann.”
The result leaves Clermont with a five-point leeway in pool five. And unless Leinster record a bonus-point win in the Aviva rematch next Saturday, the French side will retain a slight lead going into the last two matches in January. The pressure on the back-to-back champions to win next Saturday is immense.
Nor, it has to be said, will Leinster be alone in having regrets. Munster will rue letting Saracens in for a late bonus point at Thomond Park on Saturday prior to next Sunday’s rematch at Vicarage Road. Ulster’s delight in achieving their bonus point win away to Northampton will have been tempered by the news that captain Johann Muller suffered a broken arm. He will be sidelined for eight weeks.
“Devastated to be honest,” said Leinster coach Joe Schmidt and despite exchanging pleasantries with so many familiar faces, he looked it.
“You can’t put that much energy and effort into the game and create the opportunities that we did . . . It is incredibly disappointing. It’s going to be tough to try and forge ahead for next week. We need to get ourselves up. We’ve a fair few bruised bodies in there. It was fairly combative stuff at times, not always on the ball. It’s what you expect. It’s pretty tough going.”
Schmidt had ventured during the week that 21 points might be enough to qualify, albeit as one of the two best runners-up, and that would be attained with three wins, regardless of bonus points. In that regard, Connacht beating Biarritz could be a considerable help to Leinster as well as Eric Elwood’s team.
“Hopefully 21 is something we’re capable of attaining,” said Schmidt. “We’re on nine points now and we know that isn’t enough . . . we’re five points behind Clermont now. They have Exeter here and Scarlets away.”
“With Exeter winning in Scarlets, you’d think we have the tougher task going to Sandy Park. But to be honest, it’s not worth thinking about those points at this stage because . . . if we can get four next week, we know we’re still in the hunt.”
On the balance of play, a draw would have been a fair result. “We wanted it immensely . . . we had some limitations in selection obviously with the injuries that we had. But the boys who stepped in filled the breach really well,” said Schmidt, who singled out Ian Madigan and, against the potent Wesley Fofana-Aurelien Rougerie combination, recent Kiwi recruit Andrew Goodman. “For a guy who’s just stepped into the fray, I thought he did a great job . . . at times when we were under pressure.”
Schmidt was particularly rueful about those lost line-outs, courtesy of two overthrows by an unusually awry Richardt Straus, even if the way events panned out further explained why he started Seán Cronin. “I thought Seán Cronin did a great job for us . . . I’d certainly sympathise with Richardt and hopefully we can tidy that up during the week.”
The Leinster coach endorsed Jonny Sexton’s decision to opt for a cross kick off a quick penalty rather than a shot at goal from a muddy section of the pitch, all the more so as he reckoned they had to score a try to win. Nor was there much comfort in keeping Clermont tryless with next Saturday in mind.
“It’s another day, it’s a different field . . . We surprised them in a few sectors today and they’ll have an opportunity to review those and change up against us and maybe surprise us next week.”
His counterpart and friend Vern Cotter reckoned the pressure was now on Leinster and was content to win what had been there most intense game in some considerable time. “There’s very few games that are as intense as that . . . I thought they threw a lot of variations into their attack, and I thought we countered them pretty well. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next week. Hopefully we get better.”