Gerry Thornley: Leinster will rue this one that got away
‘We feel very frustrated . . . but there is a lot more to come from this team,’ says Cullen
Clermont’s Davit Zirakashvili lifts Leinster’s Devin Toner in Sunday’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A belter of an occasion, and a cracking game to match, in which Leinster contributed handsomely by the daring way they way twice threatened to turn yesterday’s European Champions Cup semi-final on its head from deficits of 15-0 and 21-12, before ultimately losing 27-22. Close, very close, but no cigar.
For all the undoubted progress made this season, notably in Europe and especially when compared to last season’s campaign, the nagging suspicion remains that chances like this don’t come along too often. While wishing Clermont well when taking on Saracens in the final in Murrayfield, for Leinster it will be hard to forget that this was, in some respects, one that got away.
This was a second semi-final defeat since their third European Cup triumph in 2012, and was different in so many respects than the extra time defeat to Toulon in Marseilles two seasons ago. Leinster will regret the three lost lineouts, wasted possession and porous defence that saw Clermont race into their early lead, and yet they still almost salvaged an unlikely comeback once they began to generate some momentum and width from their running and offloading.
Joey Carbery was again an auxiliary playmaker as well as a source of counter-attacking, while their centre partnership for years to come, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, kept probing and penetrating, with the latter scoring the individual try of the season. They had Clermont on the ropes, but the home side’s restarts and left boot of Camille Lopez saw out the game.
Of some consolation will be the knowledge that in contrast to Munster the day before in their fairly comprehensive defeat to Saracens, this second semi-final did not suggest there is such an impenetrable glass ceiling to prevent Leinster being contenders in Europe again.
“We feel very frustrated because we are that close and a lot of it is in our own control,” said Cullen. “Everyone is gutted in the dressing room. We gave a lot, we prepared incredible well, we worked so hard through the season, the players are frustrated because there are certain things we could manage better, but, as Rhys mentioned, there are some learnings for a lot of players. We just need to get back at it. We’ve a game next Friday; hopefully we learn our lessons, we can improve and get better so if we’re in this situation again, in France or wherever, we can manage the scenario better. But there is a lot more to come from this team.”
The second of Clermont’s tries, by the ever-dangerous David Strettle, came while Isa Nacewa was sin-binned for tugging the English winger off the ball, and the Leinster captain could scarcely conceal his bitter disappointment.
“Yea, it’s tough. You know we talk about leaving everything out there, but it’s just the finest of margins at the end of the day. So many great things across the early rounds of the competition, so many great performances, it probably hurts more losing in a semi, one step short. It’s a bitter pill to take.”
“We said out on the field that we have to learn from this experience. There are a lot of young guys across the team who will have take great learnings out of today and will look to get better. We have a game in five days. As a squad we have to take great learnings out of today and just prepare for the coming weeks, as there are still more trophies for us to chase.”
Regarding the pivotal 57th minute overruled “try” by Dan Leavy, which would have put Leinster in front for the first time, Cullen admitted it was probably the right call by Nigel Owens and his TMO Jonathan Mason of Wales.
“He [Leavy] probably tries to stick Rougerie, but holds on too long. It’s one of those 50/50 calls. Unfortunately it didn’t go our way but across the game there is tons of those calls. So it was a big turning point, 10 points, but even after that the players fought back well, created some more good opportunities, getting very, very close.”
Leinster now face their last two regular season games against Glasgow next Friday and away to Ulster on Saturday week, prior to what is now an unwanted rest weekend and then their home semi-final in the Pro12.
On the first round of voting for the French presidential elections, long queues were forming outside polling booths by mid-morning on a warm, sunny Sunday, but Lyon was more about one of those typically sun-drenched carnivals that invariably accompany major European games involving Clermont.
As ever, the Yellow Army began descending on the Matmut Stadium de Gerland long before the game began, by car, foot, tram and crammed metro lines. Four of their supporters wore cutout faces of Marine Le Pen, drawing a few modest cheers here and there, although most were indifferent.
The front page of La Montagne, the regional paper for Clermont-Ferrand, perhaps summed it up best with its front page heading, above a picture of thousands of their fans on the march: Ils votent tous ASM. (They all vote for ASM.) Their pitch invasion and postmatch celebrations were as if they’d won the trophy, which, of course, they’ve always found a way to lose heretofore.
They’ll be underdogs against Saracens, and it would have been fascinating to see how Leinster’s more varied and risk-taking game might have fared against Europe’s reigning champions compared to the more restricted tactics employed by Munster.
Of some consolation for Munster, who will also be favoured to reach the Pro12 final in the Aviva Stadium given they’ve virtually secured a home semi-final as well, was that Rassie Erasmus confirmed on Saturday evening that he would be staying with the province after rejecting overtures from his native South Africa.
Talking of how far Munster had come in 10 months, Erasmus said: “If you go back and see how far Saracens came in eight, nine, 10 months when they were starting out, I think we’re pretty much really close to where we want to be. We’ll be better in a year’s time, and two years’ time and three years’ time. We will be better, but you’re right, we have to get more, what is it, strings in our bow? Arrows, more options. We can’t just stay with one game-plan and think that will work. You’re right.”
Asked if he would be with them for those next few years, Erasmus smiled and said: “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”