So close but so far as Clermont end Leinster’s European dream

Leo Cullen’s side flirt with famous comeback but Camille Lopez drops French into final

Clermont 27 Leinster 22

Oh, what might have been. Leinster left themselves something of a mountain to climb at a vibrant, throbbing Stadium de Gerland, but having trailed 15-0, came within a whisker of taking the lead nearing the hour mark before ultimately Camille Lopez steadied a wobbling Clermont to steer them into the final.

For much of the first-half hour Leinster, missing Sean O’Brien and with Josh van der Flier on the bench, were bossed in the collisions and the breakdown as Clermont generated lightening quick ball while turning over or stalling Leinster, whose cause was further hindered by a malfunctioning lineout.

Initially, Morgan Parra was the creator in chief while David Strettle tormented Leinster's left flank. But gradually Leinster began to get Rhys Ruddock and co rumbling, and use the passing skills of Johnny Sexton and Gary Rringrose apply their own width to telling effect, with Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose probing dangerously. Sexton, unerring, brought it back to 15-12.


Even when a Dan Leavy touchdown was overruled after he'd been detected to have held Aurelien Rougerie at the base of a ruck in the beginning of the move, they again came back from 21-12 down thanks to a memorable try by Ringrose, before Lopez seized and sealed a cracking game.

Well over half an hour before kick-off, the Yellow Army had pretty much filled the ground, as the bands played and the home fans kept up a constant din with their chants. “Ici. Ici. C’est Mont-ferrand!” And why does the sun always seem to shine gloriously on them?

Their team duly roared into a fourth minute try. It originated from an overthrow by Richardt Strauss, and Ringrose chipping the ball away. Clermont went wide right and then up the middle, and playing with a penalty advantage, Parra used it to brilliant effect with a skip pass to Strettle, who chipped ahead for Peceli Yato to win the touchdown.

Parra even added the touchline conversion, and soon after a penalty from almost the same point when Isa Nacewa had been penalised and binned for tugging Strettle off the ball, after Parra and Lopez had again worked the ball to the right channel from a lineout.

Nacewa’s absence only encouraged Clermont to explore Leinster’s left wing again. Once more Parra’s skip pass to Strettle outflanked the defence, the English winger beating Dan Leavy on the outside and Carbery on the inside. Soon the home crowd launched into a proud rendition of Les Marseillaise.

Benjamin Keyser muscularly won a turnover after a dummy and charge by Strauss. Keyser was very much the chief in that duel, and Clermont were the kings of Lyon. Leinster, conceding penalties either side of this, looked rattled. A big hit by Henshaw on Rougerie at last won a collision and turnover, but soon Hadyen Triggs trucked it up and Fritz Lee couldn't be shifted off the ball for another Clermont penalty.

From an ensuing turnover off Clermont’s lineout drive, Luke McGrath launched a counter. Ringrose showed some good footwork on halfway, but Carbery couldn’t get his offload in the tackle away to Nacewa. Otherwise, it would have been a try.

When Parra sniped and dipped into the tackle, Rhys Ruddock was ridiculously penalised for a high hit by Nigel Owens, making the penalty count 7-2. But after Parra milked it, he missed it.

Nearing half-time, at last Leinster put together some good phases of recycling, passing and offloading. Leavy and Ringrose made inroads, and Henshaw made a good pass off the deck, before Ruddock again trucked it up and Clermont were penalised for not rolling away. With the last kick of the half, Sexton opened their account. They trooped off with a little more urgency and belief.

The way Leinster ran back the kick-off at the start of the second half, with Jack Conan making yards on the right touchline, suggested they were intent on backing their fitness levels. A clever lineout variation at the front launched Conan up the line, and Leinster went through quick phases to earn another penalty for killing the ball under the posts which might have merited yellow. Sexton made it 15-6. Another bout of Leinster attacking, with Ruddock making a big gallop, ended with Sexton making it 15-9.

Suddenly Cockles and Mussels was echoing around the ground.

Clermont countered from a kick, Strettle releasing Yato, but the covering Luke McGrath, in something of a physical miss-match, did enough to tackle the flanker’s foot in touch. Instead, Carbery countered, with Sexton taking a great line and Ruddock twice galloping over the gain line again. Sexton made it 15-12.

Now “C’mon ye Boys in Blue” really could be heard.

For a moment, it got even better. McFadden broke clear from Sexton’s inside pass, passing back to Sexton, and he made yards before releasing Henshaw up the touchline. Alas, after Leavy reached out for the line, Owens and the TMO went back and concluded that Leavy had held Rougerie at the ruck to create the space for McFadden. Instead of it being 17-15 to Leinster with the conversion to come, Parra made it 18-12.

It was a huge momentum shift. Clermont were revived, again charging into collisions. The stadium rocked. Lopez landed a superb drop goal. The Yellow Army bounced up and down in the warm sunshine.

Leinster brought on their impact men, and although Sean Cronin knocked on Sexton's pass, they kept coming. Carbery took a high kick and big hit, and stepped in as second playmaker as Leinster ran from deep. Taking Sexton's pass inside halfway, Ringrose danced back against the grain, stepping off both feet to break free, sold a delicious dummy to Spedding and then ignored the supporting Gibson-Park to go on and score a stunning try. Nick Abendanon should have been penalised for a late land on Ringrose after he'd touched down.

Sexton's conversion made it a two-point game, but Ringrose was soon isolated, and with Lee over the ball, Josh van der Flier was pinged for going off his feet allowing Lopez made it 24-19 before he added another drop goal. Sexton's 79th minute penalty gave Leinster one last shot, but Damien Penaud reclaimed another hanging Lopez restart, and that was that.

Scoring sequence: 4 mins Yato try, Parra con 7-0; 10 mins Parra pen 10-0; 15 mins Strettle try 15-0; 40+3 mins Sexton pen 15-3; (half-time 15-3); 44 mins Sexton pen 15-6; 49 mins Sexton pen 15-12; 57 mins Parra pen 18-12; 66 mins Lopez drop goal 21-12; 72 mins Lopez pen 24-19; 76 mins Lopez drop goal 27-19; 79 mins Sexton pen 27-22.

ASM Clermont Auvergne: Scott Spedding; David Strettle, Aurélien Rougerie, Remi Lamerat, Nick Abendanon; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Raphael Chaume, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Arthur Iturria, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Damien Chouly (c), Peceli Yato, Fritz Lee. Replacements: John Ulugia for Kayser, Alexandre Lapandry for Yato (both (54 mins), Damien Penaud for Rougerie (58 mins), Etienne Falgoux for Chaume, Aaron Jarvis for Zirakashvili (both 65 mins), Pato Fernandez for Lamerat (66 mins), Paul Jedrasiak for Vahaamahina, Ludovic Radosavljevic for Parra (both 70 mins).

Leinster: Joey Carbery; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (capt); Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan. Replacements: Sean Cronin for Strauss (49 mins), Peter Dooley for J McGrath, R Molony for Triggs (both 62 mins), Josh van der Flier for Leavy, Jamison Gibson-Park for L McGrath (both 65 mins), Michael Bent for Furlong, Zane Kirchner for McFadden (both 72 mins). Not used: Ross Byrne.

Sinbinned: Nacewa (10-20 mins).

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times