Truth be told, I wasn’t ever a big fan of the phrase “Fever In The Aviva”, mostly because it doesn’t bloody rhyme in a French accent, let alone an Irish one. But then again I never really liked the whole “Blue Magic” idea either, so it could just be down to my being a grumpy git.
And having seen Leinster throw away early leads this season already, the halftime score of 10-3 didn’t have me catching the fever yet either.
Though we owned the first 40 minutes in pretty much every department, you knew the French champions had it in them to come back and when given a bonus possession right as the clock went red at the end of the half, we went for the try out wide when we could have easily set up a drop goal in front of the posts and I felt that might have come back to haunt us.
Little did I know the first ten minutes of the second half would help me see the light.
I was at the top of the steps returning to my seat with my half-time pint when I realised we had gone at them from the restart and were already camped on the Clermont line, right in front of where my seat was. I barely made it down the stairs when Nigel Owens ruled Nathan Hines’ effort as held up, and for once the stadium video showed the controversial replay which at worst made a case for sending it to the TMO.
But all that was forgotten moments later – a five metre scrum and a few phases saw man-of-the-match Cian Healy crashing through Clermont hooker Paulo’s tackle to nab his second try.
Brilliant! I thought. But even THEN, I was wary of an impending fightback.
And when we went straight back into their 22 and Healy lost the ball in the tackle, I thought “there it is, THAT’s the moment we’ll be looking back on when we lose, I KNEW it.”
Then Benoit Baby, the ironically-named replacement for Anthony Floch whose wife had gone into labour back home, threw a shocker of a pass; his fellow backs probably weren’t expecting to get the ball anyway as he should’ve cleared his lines, and the ball went out of play close to his own try line.
Not only was Jamie Heaslip savvy enough to take the quick throw, by the time he was letting go of the ball, Shaggy was already running at full pelt, and he took it into the tackle, virtually on the line. Reddan was on hand to get a quick ball to Sean O’Brien who sealed the win as the bemused Frenchmen either looked on or tried way to late to stop him (pic right).
The conversion followed, all of a sudden it was 24-3, and now the rhymes rang out in perfect harmony as I was a fully fledged believa in the feva at the Aviva.
Then a load of texts and tweets let me know my frozen face had been spotted on the telly (pic above) and I was left anticipating a previously unfathomable bonus point which would have put us totally out of sight in Pool Two.
Well, as it turned out that wasn’t to be, but even though the French eventually did pull a try back, the manner in which it came made it clear that it just wasn’t to be their night.
They came straight back at us from the restart and were camped on our line, but we held them out long enough to earn a clearing penalty. THAT goalline defence is what rounded off a monumental display for Leinster. Had Clermont scored then, their tails would’ve been up and more could have followed.
As it turned out, even though Nalaga DID barge over for a try on 68 minutes, he did so RIGHT after Parra had been taken off, so it was left to Brock James to attempt the conversion to take them one score away from a key bonus point - thankfully the Aussie outhalf was still daunted enough by his Dublin demons to miss, and the scoring was done for the day.
Although there were impressive displays in the Leinster backline (like Isa’s remarkable “catch & staying in play” moment in the first half), it was mostly the pack that brought home this particular bacon. Healy and O’Brien not only got the tries but also provided the bulk of the forward momentum, Mike Ross’ scrummaging made him a no-brainer for Irish starting consideration hours after Buckley was torn apart by Adam Jones in Swansea, and Heaslip showed yet more of his credentials as future international skipper.
Joe Schmidt praised his squad to the full afterwards particularly for their defensive showing, but he himself must also take the credit as these two epic encounters against his old boss Vern Cotter had to be on his radar the second the schedule was announced, and he came out on top in style.
Let’s face it - in their Heineken Cup displays so far this season, Leinster have actually succeeded in improving their try-scoring from 2009 without sacrificing their awesome defence, which in essence was Schmidt’s biggest challenge.
The way things stand right now, our “pool of death” is ours to lose. A win against Sarries plus a bonus point in Paris should seal the deal.
Nothing in this sport is for certain I know, but even this grumpy git has to believe we can do it.
Happy Christmas everyone.
AROUND THE PROVINCES
Just a few random thoughts about the weekend’s other Irish performances…
The Ospreys will always feel they’re due a Heineken Cup triumph, and with the final in Cardiff next May, they’ve every incentive to get there. Still, although they played with a lot of fire in their belly, I can’t help feeling it was Munster’s lack of discipline that not only cost them in Swansea, but could cost them qualification from the pool. I’ve already said how O’Connell’s swing of the arm cost effectively cost them two pool points…then on Saturday it was an unbelievably stupid grab at the ball off his feet by Leamy which gave Dan Biggar the chance to stretch the home lead. Add to that the brace of spear tackles from yellow card magnets Tuitupou & Mafi which thanks to their respective reputations could earn them citings, and things look bleak for the two-time champions. Having said all of that, only a fool would ever write off Munster for good. They must go to Toulon and win, and as we saw in Perpignan a year ago today, they’re well able to pull a world-class performance out of the fire.
What character the northerners showed at the Rec! Humph was booting them over from all angles and distances but it was the youth that Brian McLaughlin has brought into the first team like Nevin Spence and Adam Darcy who provided the spark that pinched this contest and gave Ulster a super chance to reach the last eight. Even though this Pool is a contender to advance two teams, wins at Ravenhill and Aironi in their final two matches must be in their sights. Confidence in the squad will be sky high and next Monday could very well be the worst possible stage of the season to have to go to Belfast, and guess what, Leinster must do just that.
In the Amlin you have to win your pool to get any further, and that leads to a lot of teams dropping out early, and sadly that includes Connacht now after their heroic march to the semis last year. They can be forgiven when you consider that they’re in transition under Eric Elwood but they’ve been dealt a further blow in that they’re set to lose such key names as Cronin & Carr to Leinster and Keatley to Munster. I’m sure they’ll get Academy players in return and as a blues fans I’m not exactly complaining! Cronin in particular will be huge for us next year. But enough about us! John Muldoon’s broken arm in Galway could be the final nail in their coffin for this season already.