Leinster left reeling by Clermont power
Leinster 21 Clermont 28There was the delicious anticipation of the Leinster crowd and the sense that Clermont’s visit to Dublin was a tumbril ride, the 48,000 crowd like Madame Defarge, their knitted brows and clicking needles looking forward to the spectacle of a French execution.
Leinster, however had their chance last week in the mountains. This week Clermont came prepared and as much as the provincial cognoscenti can point to referee Wayne Barnes letting go three or four infringements under French posts with out warnings, or a scrum that was in the end crushed, or that injury piled on injury, none adequately explained just how Clermont soared so high above everything in the Aviva Stadium.
Across the platforms Clermont took on the European champions, using their strength and pace, their defence and their power to squeeze the life from the home side. For large chunks of the match in both halves Clermont owned the ball and when Leinster conceded penalties, they were in kickable areas and Morgan Parra duly obliged with seven successful punts. In the end the home side was honourably, but well tanned.
Possession, territory, individual commitment, leadership, the kicking of Parra, combined and there were no French weaknesses to pick. There were no psychological or physical flaws to exploit. There were no mad rushes of blood into French heads to offer hope.
Seán O’Brien’s sin-binning hurt Leinster after 51 minutes but even that – combined with all the picky issues at which Leinster may have had a gripe – couldn’t disguise that for long spells, the champions were simply hanging in there. It was a day when the French aristocracy escaped the cutting edge and walked away, not only healthy but with a newly forged and clear sense of worth and big ideas that they could now win this competition.
Leinster did just hang in the match and still just about hang on in the competition, two five point wins against Exeter and the Scarlets and crossed fingers for other results to fall sympathetically in order for them to pick up a second in the pool qualification spot. Even Joe Schmidt was unable to show much enthusiasm for exploring that mathematical model.
The match was also a chase from the beginning for Leo Cullen and his side as Clermont put the ball in Leinster territory and stayed there solidly for the first 10 minutes, man of the match Morgan Parra adding the first three of his points. Leinster drew level, fell back three points, drew level again for 6-6 on 26 minutes and didn’t score another point until seven minutes after half-time for 9-19.
The chase was, in the end, a hopeless one that petered out in the face of a relentlessly up tempo opposition. Clermont steadily gathered their points through the boot of their scrumhalf to add to a 35th minute try for Wesley Fofana after Sitiveni Sivivatu had sucked three or four blue shirts into the left corner.
At that point shortly after O’Brien departed on 51 minutes the contest appeared to naturally breathe its last. Parra kicked another penalty for 9-22 as the flanker took to his seat, the crowd quietened, looked around, shuffled in their seats, went for beer and thankfully didn’t do a Mexican wave but at 11 points and a man down wondered where the beating of Clermont was going to come from. In the eerie silence, Clermont crushed a Leinster scrum, Parra hit the post and then landed another penalty for 9-25.
Hell raising finish
Barnes finally had words with captain Aurelien Rougerie for the fourth infringement under their posts and from that lucrative piece of real estate Devin Toner gathered from a lineout for openside flanker Shane Jennings to barrel over for a try. With the excellent Sexton’s conversion for 16-25 on 66 minutes, the numbers looked plausible if Leinster could conjure a hell-raising finish.
This week that was not in the script, not against this Clermont team. Parra, unperturbed by another bout of booing from the crowd, banged over another kick and with replacement flanker Julien Bardy sin-binned on 75 minutes, Leinster left their best offensive move for last.
A Fergus McFadden break out of Leinster turf down the right put Sexton into a gallop with French cover sliding across. But the outhalf, showing his sense of space and awareness, moved infield to meet his tackler creating space outside. Sexton was felled but not before he had returned to McFadden for the try.
It took Leinster to within seven points for a bonus, one that could be crucial when the pool ledgers are balanced. But they left the pitch heads down and in the knowledge that their league game against Ulster in Belfast at the weekend looks more important than ever if they are to win any silverware this year.