One that got away as Leinster fail to reel in Clermont
POOL FIVE Clermont Auvergne 15 Leinster 12:Leinster made the retreat from Clermont last night with an abiding feeling that this was one that got away. They may not have scored a try, and save for a couple of cross kicks, rarely looked like scoring one after an early incision by Ian Madigan, but then neither did Clermont in what was, nevertheless, another compelling encounter between the two.
Not many teams have kept Clermont tryless in their three-year, 51-match unbeaten run at their home cauldron, and on the balance of play Leinster had enough of the game and opportunities, along with an increasingly superior scrum to have at least earned a draw. That they didn’t was in large part to a misfiring lineout, which creaked all the more after Seán Cronin was replaced by Richardt Strauss. In that, Joe Schmidt’s selection was vindicated.
The statistics will also show that Leinster had six penalties within kicking range to five for the home side – one of which Brock James turned into three points with a drop goal as Nigel Owens played advantage.
However, whereas Morgan Parra was four from four (all in the first half) Jonny Sexton, whose game management, general play and tackling were immense, missed one of his five and also elected for a cross-kick from another early in the second half.
In a taut, bruising and at times ill-tempered game, the ebb and flow could be measured by the noise levels, which lurched in extremes continually, from high optimism through happiness, outrage and back again before ultimate contentment.
Hints of frustration
The crowd even afforded Sexton relative silence for his kicks, albeit with hints of frustration over the time he took, which also prompted a warning from Owens. Sexton missed one of his four shots at goal in the first-half, whereas Parra didn’t and with James’s drop goal on half-time they skipped off somewhat relieved with a 15-9 lead after Leinster had come back strongly from 9-3 down to level.
Though clean breaks and try-scoring opportunities were at a premium this was another typically full-on game between the two, their fifth in three four season. As usual the howls when Leinster dared to compete at ruck time and recycle the ball patiently were more in keeping with a pantomime crowd.
But after Parra had opened the scoring when Mike Ross was adjudged to have brought down the first scrum, after a curious indirect penalty had reversed the scrum to the home team, Napolini Nalaga was fortunate indeed not to be yellow carded for diving in off his feet to prevent a recycle under his posts. Jamie Heaslip had put the trailing Madigan through with an inside pass.
There was no doubting the quality as each side probed, Clermont going through some high tempo phases and playing with their customary depth and width. Leinster didn’t help themselves with Sexton’s first miss and Fergus McFadden probably saved a try by coming off his wing.
A Parra penalty followed, as did another after a non-existent chase to one of several fine box kicks by the impressive Isaac Boss enabled Nalaga, Aurelien Rougerie and Lee Byrne to counter.
Leinster responded well, bossing the ball for seven or eight minutes with patient recycling for Sexton to land a couple of penalties, which made the failure to regroup around Isa Nacewa for another restart to him – both teams continually had the same target of opposing left-winger – all the more disappointing as Parra’s fourth penalty and the James’s drop goal closed out the half.
However, after Lee Byrne and Nalaga were tested by Sexton crosskicks to Nacewa and McFadden, the latter from a scrum penalty, a huge Leinster scrum yielded another penalty which enabled Sexton to trim the lead to 15-12.
Clermont tried to up the ante, running hard straight lines from depth out wide, but Kevin McLaughlin and Seán O’Brien made good covering tackles as Rougerie and Byrne made handling errors.
Even the howls were becoming more and more desperate. After Rougerie danced around Goodman, McFadden made the covering tackle on Byrne only for the petulant Parra to concede a penalty for kicking the ball away.
Alas, Leinster’s lineout was coming under ferocious pressure from the outstanding Julien Bonnaire and co, and he forced a turnover when nabbing Eoin Reddan. But so too did Shane Jennings, after a double tackle on Fofana by Goodman and Sexton.
Again though, Strauss overthrew, and with that effectively went Leinster’s last chance to salvage what would have been a priceless draw.