This was a funny old game…over the entire 80 minutes, Leinster will be disappointed not to have gotten more than a losing bonus point, yet over the final ten, they’ll consider themselves lucky to have mustered their morsel from the Marcel Michelin.
So given this was a huge Heineken Cup battle at the home of the French champions, plus the fact that we still top the pool and now have two out of three remaining matches at home, the Leinster faithful’s judgement should really come down on the positive side.
If anything separates the French Top 14 competition from the other two European leagues, for me it’s the use of the drop goal, particularly early in the contest. Teams are much more willing to take advantage of easy position under the posts and get the scoreboard moving rather than plug the line with phases and risk coming away with nothing.
But with every rule, there’s an exception, and in France that’s Clermont. And why? Well in their Championship year, it was mostly down to Joe Schmidt. They were hands down the best try-scoring team in the competition, and today’s squad still contains the bulk of that creativity.
I reckon it was that reluctance to take the simple three points early on that contributed to Leinster’s downfall, and in a sort of cruel irony, it was Shane Horgan’s try out wide off our first possession that gave us belief that there were more to come.
Please note the words “cruel irony”. I’m not saying Schmidt got it wrong with his tactics. If anything the sight of our backline flinging it out wide then switching the play all the way in the other direction was a joy to watch. It’s just we haven’t quite honed that system yet, and in the two tries the home side got in response, they showed us how it’s done.
As delighted as I was to see Shaggy get the opener, he was fortunate in that the ball bounced kindly for him after a knock on. From then until the 20th minute, I counted three occasions where we got into their 22 only to lose it. Granted we were unlucky the third time, after a world-class break & timed pass by O’Malley put the equally impressive McFadden clear only for Sexton to miss the oncoming Nacewa, otherwise it would’ve been the try of the season.
All I’m saying is that however admirable our attacking spirit was, given we were the visiting team maybe playing at a lower gear would have reaped more rewards.
In fact it was Clermont who played more like the visitors, and were all too happy to try a drop goal themselves late in the first half only for it to be fluffed by Floch. But in the second half they started to turn the screw defensively and we found it more and more difficult to get near their line and by the time we did, ie when Jennings desperately stretched out his double-movement, a drop goal was no good to us.
But it’s not often you feel more confident for the losing coach than the victorious one, and this is one of those times. Schmidt needs to dig deep and use every ounce of his home advantage at the Aviva Stadium next weekend, much like he did against Munster back in October.
And with so many injuries in the squad, how comforting it must be for him to know that even without Kearney, Fitzgerald, O’Driscoll and possibly now Heaslip, he has excellent young talent in reserve with the likes of O’Malley, Fads, Ryan and my man of the match Sean O’Brien (pic) to fill the void.
It’s only half time in this one, folks, and I saw nothing in the first half to make me think Leinster can’t come storming back next Saturday and reverse this result.