'We don't have same depth as the big-spending French clubs'
It’s been an amazing run. Joe Schmidt has all but conceded the Heineken Cup champions will not be defending their title come the knockout stages in April.
That’s what happens when a gargantuan French pack – with Canadian, Australian and Georgian enforcers – is permitted the latitude to tear up an already fragile Leinster side.
In contrast to the previous week’s 15-12 defeat, the scrum crumbled. The usually dependable anchor, Mike Ross, sunk to the bottom of the ocean under what can be perceived as illegal scrummaging. The lineout stuttered on Seán Cronin’s watch.
Clermont also wiped Leinster at the breakdown, despite brave resistance from Seán O’Brien, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip.
Lose those three contact zones and victory over the mighty Clermont Auvergne becomes an impossible dream.
Too big, too powerful was the assessment of Schmidt afterwards. “It’s incredibly disappointing to have the scrum controlled the way it was,” said Schmidt. “We have to live with that but once a very strong team like Clermont had a ready supply of ball they are very difficult to stop, the size and strength of their ball runners.
“I don’t think we have the same depth as some of the big-spending French clubs,” Schmidt went on.
“We got a little skeletal today but I couldn’t fault what the players put into either of the two games. It is hard to take defeat two weeks in a row, considering the effort.”
But, to their credit, Leinster could have won this match if the small margins went their way. If only Wayne Barnes had been more understanding in the scrum (in fairness, he rewarded the steam-rolling eight). If only Wesley Fofana had not cleverly delayed his pass to Sitiveni Sivivatu then O’Brien would have avoided a hugely damaging sin-binning on 51 minutes.
“Seán thought (Sivivatu) had the ball, there was no contact with the head, from what I could see in replays, and that was the first infringement. Again, there’s things that we’re dissatisfied with but not with what Clermont brought to the game, they’re a massive team.”
If only Barnes had yellow-carded a Clermont defender, any Clermont defender, when they poured offside en masse whenever Leinster entered their 22.
“Yeah, there were three consecutive penalty advantages and that happens sometimes. There’s a measure of frustration but there’s a lot of respect as well, I think they came to play, they played very well.
“We outthought them last week, but you’ve got to think on your feet against the power that they bring. If they get access to the game they’re going to be incredibly hard to stop. I’d love to see them go through and do well; obviously they’re my old club, there’s a little bit of a measure of respect that we managed to get to two tries to one.”
Morgan Parra did the real damage, kicking seven penalties and converting Fofana’s try, created when Sivivatu broke Gordon D’Arcy’s tackle.
Fergus McFadden’s 79th-minute riposte secured a bonus point – there was an argument for Jonathan Sexton drop goaling the conversion and forcing Clermont to restart the contest one more time – which leaves Leinster on 10 points.
Not even Schmidt envisages two bonus point victories coming in January at home to Scarlets and away to Exeter.
“Twenty (points) has given you a sniff in the past but I can’t see Exeter or Scarlets coming along to us and saying you deserve five. I think anything you get from either of those teams you’re going to have to grab and be very good to do it.
“I’d hope we might have a little bit more depth at that stage, but it’s very difficult because we’ve been waiting for Rob Kearney or Luke Fitzgerald or Brian O’Driscoll to get back.
“Eoin O’Malley is playing tomorrow for the first time since the PRO12 semi-final last year, particularly in the back line. Quinn Roux is there with his arm in a sling. It’s just not great for us; unfortunately that’s the nature of the game. Everyone does get injuries but when they stack up it’s very difficult.”
If only they were all fit and healthy. If only every season could be like last season.