Sunday, December 09, 2012

Clermont-15 Leinster-12

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HEAVYWEIGHTS

It goes without saying that given a choice between your team winning when the opposition is poor, and losing despite playing extremely well, any sports fan worth their salt would go for the former.

But as tempting as it may be to compare this contest with the other 11 ties that took place in Round 3 of the Heineken Cup this weekend, it really can't be done. For in this case, the match itself lived up in every way to the hype that came before it and despite the fact that there were no tries, it was a classic bout between two European heavyweights that should long be remembered.

You'd think I'd be throwing bouquets at myself that in my preview for SportsNews Ireland, I predicted a 3-point Clermont win. In actual fact I have a confession to make...I actually thought we'd lose by much more.

A lot was made of Clermont's 50-match unbeaten run at home, but in many ways the pressure was more on us as we had a 17-match streak of our own in this competition to protect, plus the small matter of 3 triumphs in 4 years. As a fan while you want to retain belief that the run of success can continue, you can't ignore the thoughts in the back of your mind that another team's day is bound to come, the lease on your mojo is due to run out, or as I felt for this match, both would happen at once.

922377-15304422-640-360So when the home side were comfortably going through phases towards our 22 in the opening minute, it was pretty much as I had expected...a converted try as that moment would not have surprised me one bit.

But then came a super choke tackle from Jamie Heaslip that forced a turnover. Hang on...it looks like we're here to play! Game on, I thought to myself.

From that moment on, a string of different events took place and somewhere in this sequence lies the three points by which Leinster fell short of a draw which would have been pretty much as good as a win given the circumstances.

  • Back on September 8 in Leinster's home opener against the Dragons, Sean Cronin got into the head of referee Marius Mitrea by causing confusion over the mark for the scrum from the word go. He seemed to think he could do the same with Nigel Owens in this match. He was very wrong, and after all the hard work forcing the turnover, it ended up as Clermont ball, they then won a penalty and hey presto, it's 3-0 with the match barely begun.

  • In most of the other matches in Round 3 this weekend, 4/5 from your placekicker would have been enough for victory. Not so against Clermont, especially since Vern Cotter saw sense and let Parra do the kicking instead of James. So Sexton's miss with his second attempt, which was very much gettable, has to be highlighted as a factor, and I'm sure he knows that himself.

  • Having clawed our way back from 9-3 down to 9-9, our two locks seemed to fall asleep from the restart and failed to protect Isa Nacewa from the onrushing Sivivatu and shortly after the ensuing turnover, Parra was aiming at the posts to restore the lead.

  • This one is a bit harsh, as the high ball that Sexton & Madigan knocked on between them at the end of the first half was tough, but the fact remains had it been taken, the halftime margin would have been three rather than six points as shortly afterwards Brock James slotted a drop goal with the luxury of a penalty advantage.

  • It was our turn to dominate possession from the start of the second half, and in our first scoring chance Sexton chose a crossfield kick – given how this worked in Llanelli, I couldn't fault him for THIS choice although Lee Byrne made an excellent catch. However after the clearance that followed, our out-half put a high kick straight into touch which pretty much ended our chances of scoring on that visit.

  • I WILL fault our outhalf for the crossfield kick with the penalty on 47 minutes. I'm normally not a conservative person but I still believe there are times in sport where the only option is to play it safe, and not only were we the away team in a hostile environment, the way the match was set up there was a huge psychological battle for the first score of the second half, and the three points were handed to us on a plate. I know he would have been a hero if it came off, but it didn't so this goes on my list as another three points we left behind.

  • On 56 minutes, we had Richardt Strauss' first bad dart. This was just a technical error on his part, but still in a match like this, a lineout on their tryline has to be turned into a point scoring opportunity and he couldn't even secure us the ball.

  • On 76 minutes, after a superbly-won penalty at midfield by Shane Jennings and an excellent kick to touch by Sexton, we had another lineout, this time further back on their 22, but still one where we have been able to launch scoring platforms on several occasions in this competition. My only thought was, “don't throw it long”. It wasn't even about lack of confidence in Strauss, it was about the simple basic need of going for a routine grab & maul or tap-down and working our way into the red zone. What did we do instead? Yep.

So as you can see, the three points by which we fell short were there but we were unable to get them. But does this mean I'm completely down on our performance? Absolutely not.

Early in the second half Sky's Stu Barnes perfectly described Gordon D'Arcy's cover of a rampaging run by Rougerie...he stood up to him and counted on a team-mate coming in with a tackle on the other side and Sean O'Brien duly obliged, forcing a knock-on.  The examples I list above may have cost us, but were it not for the match-ready intensity of moments like this one, we wouldn’t have been in a position to get a result in the first place.

As always, first and foremost, our defence was solid throughout. You have to remember the sheer class the Clermont side had from 11 through 15, not to mention the amount of matches they have played together this season and last. Stack that up against the XV Joe Schmidt selected...not one combination anywhere on the park was used to playing together, but still they came up trumps.

And it wasn't just our defence. Goodman & Darcy may have worked well as a centre tandem but in McFadden, Nacewa and Madigan it was like we had three more in their position and we really did well mixing things up going forward, particularly on our first attack as Madigan found an acre of space.  Fergus in particular put in yet another in a long line of excellent shifts with the only blemish being a kick ahead coming off the side of his boot.

705414In the forwards, after a few early blips our front row turned things around including winning the penalty that was the only score of the second half. Although a few players in key positions were quiet like Browne, McLaughlin & Toner, Jamie Heaslip was often doing the work of all of them put together, and Shane Jennings’ bloody cameo tells me has HAS to start next Saturday.

Only trouble was, the Clermont defence was just as good, and try-scoring was always likely to be a bridge too far for both sides. The breakdown was a ferocious place throughout with rucking, counter-rucking and sometimes even counter-counter-rucking top notch by both sides.

It would be easy to say this wasn't a “classic” because you didn't see many free-flowing moves and sequences of breath-taking offloads, but there's a reason for that...when those YouTube moments happen it's often because the defence was lacking. Not so here, and it should be applauded every bit as much as the champagne rugby.

When it came to Nigel Owens, I commend him for leaving his cards at home, but I wonder if Clermont have a beef with him on a few calls that went in Leinster's favour, particularly towards the end? The penalty against Parra for preventing a quick lineout was technically correct though it would have been very easy not to give it, and although the Clermont 9 was a bit hasty kicking the last gasp penalty to touch without first checking if there was time for a lineout, we definitely caught a break as Nigel chose to end the match at that moment.

Still when all is said and done, I felt we could/should have gotten more out of this match, though given it was budget week here in Ireland and I feared a much heavier loss, I can only see the glass as half-full. Let me put it this simply...going on this performance, Leinster are still very much in contention for a third Heineken Cup in a row.

Of course I'm not saying it will be easy by any stretch, but if we can play like that with a patchwork team at European rugby's biggest fortress, then who is to say we can't get out of this pool in second place and win an away quarterfinal, even if it's back at the Marcel Michelin as it very well could be? Or Thomond Park? Or Vicarage Road? Or the Stoop? Or Toulouse? Or, dare I say it, even Ravenhill?

But first things first...a six-day turnaround awaits both these great sides, and an eight-point victory has to be Leinster's target next Saturday afternoon. Given the excellent preparation Joe Schmidt & his staff seem to have done for round one, I have every confidence our proven heavyweights can do something similar when they step back in the ring at Lansdowne Road, and with a massive home crowd in their corner, should be able to land a few more telling punches. JLP

Also this weekend

Northampton Saints 6 - 25 Ulster

Connacht 22 - 14 Biarritz

Glasgow 6 - 9 Castres

Scarlets 16 - 22 Exeter Chiefs

Toulouse 30 - 14 Ospreys

Zebre 14 - 57 Harlequins

Sale Sharks 6 - 17 Toulon

Munster 15 - 9 Saracens

Racing Metro 19 - 9 Edinburgh

Cardiff Blues 24 - 35 Montpellier

Leicester Tigers 33 - 25 Benetton Treviso

HCup pool table

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