[Update April 2, 2014 - This week our trip into the archives goes back to 2012 when Leinster also faced a Heineken Cup knockout trip to France on a Sunday. It could be said that the upcoming Toulon mission will be a defining point of Matt O’Connor’s role in the post-Schmidt/Sexton/Nacewa era.]
I know this tournament is called the Heineken Cup but the final five minutes of this epic contest reminded me of an ad for Guinness from years gone by.
It features a surfer going out against a series of massive waves which are cleverly depicted by charging giant horses. This is pretty much what Leinster's defence had to do to keep out the all-out Clermont assault in the closing stages and no matter what your allegiance it's hard to deny they deserved their piece of luck when gravity forced Wesley Fofana to fall in such a way that his arm couldn't plant the ball over the line for what would have been the winning score.
And given the overall story of the match, there can be little doubt that the better of the two sides on the day have reached the final, but by God, Leinster sure didn't make things easy for themselves!
Our solid defence wasn't just a factor at the end, it was to the forefront right throughout the match. You could see it in Clermont's choice of options. When awarded a penalty in their own 22 early on, rather than avail of the clearing kick & lineout award, Parra chose the quick tap and even with the defence caught unawares the best result they could get was a Leinster throw-in back in their own half.
But here we had our biggest Achilles Heel – at the time I was berating Richardt Strauss for his darts but that would be a bit unfair to the Clermont lineout operators particularly Hines and Bonnaire as they really did a number on us in a phase of play we heavily rely on for attacking opportunities. Given the moves we do off the lineout we really need all 8 forwards taking part in them and I reckon if this is to be fixed before the final we'll need to work on 4- and 6-man options otherwise Ulster will look to make similar mischief in Twickenham.
In fact, I'm wondering...when was the last time a Leinster team even tried a short “1-2” move between hooker and first man?
Still...in general play, the “visitors” had the upper hand, right from the opening kickoff. Leinster collected it inside their own 22, advanced it to 5m from halfway. Clermont collected it there but were driven back 10m into their own half before turning it over. This was pretty much the pattern for most of the match.
The only way Clermont were able to get attacking positions were from Leinster mistakes, and unfortunately, there were a lot of them.
All the experts said that this would be a “true test of greatness” for this Leinster team for even though it was away from the Marcel-Michelin it was every bit your typical hostile partisan French crowd. And having seen each and every one of these players make the right choices more often than not all season, I have to say it seems to have gotten to them a bit.
Sexton & Rob Kearney struggled with the wind in the first half, with a penalty not finding touch and their normally pinpoint garryowens either going too far or falling too short. Then we had Cian Healy's ridiculous offload which led to the penalty that put Clermont six points ahead going into the break. And of course there was discipline at the breakdown, either being isolated in possession or being too eager without it.
The two biggest Leinster no-nos for me came towards the end. When we went 19-15 ahead there were still 18 minutes left on the clock – after beating 3 tacklers and charging into the Clermont 22 Sean O'Brien chose to kick forward...understandable as he was afraid of being isolated, but still nonetheless a tad reckless.
Then there was Brainfart Of The Day by Eoin Reddan. Absolutely no doubt he made a massive difference when he came on with his speed to the ball at the breakdown plus his accurate box-kicks vital to keeping his side on the front foot. But with the clock past 70 minutes and possession assured deep inside the Clermont half, why does a scrum-half try a drop kick from out wide? I contend that had he taken the high-percentage option of creating front-foot phases we wouldn't have had those heart-stopping moments at the end like we did.
OK, that's enough about the Leinster mistakes, because if I go on any more I may forget we actually won the game! I have been saying all season that one of the biggest strengths of a Schmidt-led side is their ability to get scores when they most need to and if ever this was the case it was after the break. I'm pretty sure the Clermont players were watching last year's final (in fact one of them played in it!) so they will have known the Blues would come at them from the restart.
Yet when Cian Healy touched down for the game's only try there was 41:26 on the clock. Clermont couldn't use their first possession and as things turned out it only took us one good lineout to create enough space for a scintillating line followed by a perfectly timed pass from Rob Kearney to send Church over the line.
And here's a good time for yet another glowing paragraph or two about Rob. Remember what many Leinster fans were saying after our triumph last season? That there was no need for Kearney The Elder to come back into the side because we had Isa? Well you couldn't write a better script for the Louth man to prove us all wrong.
Sky Sports have a graphic device when they want to show a particular player; they darken most of the pitch on the screen and display a God-like beam of light from the heavens on the player they wish to highlight. Since his return to action this season Kearney has mostly played as though such a light were continuously on him, and never more so than his improbable drop-goal. I remember when Sexton went for his in Murrayfield I was thinking : “What the hell is he doing?” Given what I have seen from our number 15 all season, this time I thought “He'll get this, you know!”
Plus – do you remember him pulling off many of his trademark leaping catches? No, probably because Clermont knew not to give him any. Now he wasn't immune to making the odd error himself on the day, but they were very odd and his moments of brilliance more than made up for them and proved to be decisive.
Of the other Leinster starters, Luke was quiet yet again and I was glad to see McFadden given his chance relatively early. I thought Jamie Heaslip deserves a mention because on several occasions especially in the first half he did a good job tidying up when we struggled at set pieces. And there can be no doubt that despite their “advanced” years, the Leinster centre-pairing had the upper hand over their opposite numbers – setting the tone brilliantly with an early combined hit on Rougerie - although if I knew back here in Dublin the ball was going to the Clermont skipper after that lineout, surely they did too! And of course even with the one that barely missed, Sexton was mostly at his usual best for this competition.
But overall despite being the better side it did seem the rugby gods were smiling on us – it certainly didn't help Clermont's cause losing Malzieu and Lee Byrne as they did before the first quarter was even over. And of course there was “that” strike by Leo Cullen.
I never hide from the fact that I'm a partisan Leinster fan, in fact my blog logo has “one eye” partly to demonstrate it. So it won't surprise you that I don't think any more action needs to be taken against Leo Cullen. For me, his swipe was more akin of a player swatting away an opponents arm rather than throwing a punch. Not that it was a clever move by the skipper, however, and I fully expected a yellow. But when it comes to citing, I reckon Lionel Faure's grossly over-stated reactions will work in our favour. That's the kind of antics that will only work in a sport that DOESN'T use video technology.
Besides, if Cullen is to be cited then so will Julien Bardy for charging him with his shoulder amid the chaos at the end. With Clermont having only the Bouclier de Brennus to play for I have a feeling the two incidents will cancel each other out and we won't hear any more. But we have until 5pm Tuesday to find out so you never know…
If anything needs to be called into question it’s Wayne Barnes’ time-management. With only 2 minutes left on the clock, every second was vital to Leinster if Fofana’s “try” had been legit yet it took him 30 seconds to stop the clock after signalling the TMO, then it went on an extra 10 before it did stop. Then having signalled no try (in other words Leinster now WANTED it to start ticking) I made it that it took him a further 50 seconds to start it even with both scrums fully formed. These distinctions are vital at this stage of the game and one of these days it’s going to prove decisive. My recommendation is that the TMO be used to set the clock, but of course I’m glad it didn’t prove to be a factor here!
Special mention must go to the legions of travelling Leinster supporters – my word they did us proud. Although the arena was every bit as partisan as I described earlier even on the French TV playback you can clearly make out hearty choruses of “Come On You Boys In Blue” and “Molly Malone”. And by all reports it seems the Clermont fans themselves were more than gracious to their counterparts afterwards and having experienced them a couple of times in Dublin I wouldn’t expect any less.
Meanwhile at full-time there I sat, in the Horse Show House down in the back lounge, still in disbelief that our defence had somehow managed to conquer the advancing waves and slowly but surely it dawned on me that we had reached yet another final, this time an All-Irish one in Twickenham. And not only had it been a successful weekend for Leinster and Ulster, Munster A had lifted the BandI Cup and also of course Connacht participation in next year's tournament had been assured.
Dare I plug another beverage? I dare. Carlsberg don't do rugby weekends... JLP
Also this weekend
Friday, April 27
British & Irish Cup Final
Saturday, April 28