Saturday, December 15, 2012

Leinster-21 Clermont-28

LR v ASM Fofana

OUT-LEINSTERED

When interviewed immediately after the 2012 Heineken Cup final, Brian O'Driscoll spoke of Leinster establishing a “dynasty”. After they had conquered all before them for a third time in four years, you could see the logic in his lofty statement.

Thing is, though, there were always going to be those out there who had other ideas, and first and foremost among them had to be Vern Cotter. As he brought his Clermont side to the forefront of European club rugby, Leinster had up to that point been the whale to his Captain Ahab.

Then the draw was made for the pool stage and these two great rivals were to meet in yet another decisive December double. No doubt he'll say different but I can only imagine his entire 2012/13 season to date has seen him preparing his superb squad of players just for these two contests, and my word, they came up trumps when it mattered.

And when you look back over Leinster's success in recent years, especially under Cotter's former assistant Joe Schmidt, you see two main qualities in particular that have brought it about : (1) a fiendishly stubborn defence, and (2) an incredible ability to respond in kind to virtually every score that goes against you.

184829-clermont-parra-leinsterThis is precisely what Clermont did to prevail on Saturday, and having choked on a strong dose of their own medicine, Leinster can have absolutely no complaints whatsoever about the outcome.

Yet the match was still very much a contest in the 25th minute. These two giants of the continental game had sized each other up in the opening exchanges, and although the visitors were generally getting the better of things, Leinster had made two strong bursts into their 22 and won penalties to keep the score locked at 6.

This was one way I thought the French defence, while as tenacious as Leinster's has been over the past few years, differed slightly. Whenever a try looked imminent from us in the first quarter, rather than wear themselves out as we have often done until a mistake was forced, they killed the momentum early with a penalty, happy to concede three instead of seven, thus knocking the wind out of our high-octane front-foot offence.

Yet still we were at parity into the second quarter, so it was all to play for. But then it seemed that having kept the champions from crossing the whitewash twice already, Les Jaunards were ready to turn the screw. Even though Nathan Hines' mischief in the maul from the restart conceded a penalty, with the ensuing possession Leinster were unable to advance the ball, and once Clermont had it back thanks to a Julien Bonnaire turnover they knew exactly how to put us under pressure.

Ian Madigan will one day be a fine international player, of that there can be no doubt. But he really needs to get away from the full-back position before too much damage is done to his reputation. Clermont rightly targeted him from the off and reaped the reward, never more so than his poor clearance that fell into the grateful arms of Nalaga who offloaded to the “big Georgian rag doll” (as Stu Barnes called him) David Zirakashvili and with Leinster a lot more willing to soak up red zone pressure, after a rake of phases they eventually won their own penalty.

LRvASM ParraMorgan Parra was so good with the boot that day (and indeed is most days) that even if you had watched the match in full a second time you'd raise an eyebrow at the stats sheet which shows he missed one. And of the eight he landed, this one was the best for me. May have been on a left-footer's favourable side, but given the position of the match it was a high-pressure kick and he nailed it without a sweat to put Clermont in front for good.

But it was still only a three point lead at that point, and from the restart Jonathan Sexton chose to try for a second time for a “marquee” play to Nacewa which again failed to come off. I know full well the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” but if you didn't question player's decisions there would be no need for blogs & fan sites! I still feel that heavyweight bouts like these, especially when finely poised, are the time for executing the routine plays first, and those early restarts needed to go into the Clermont 22 and make them play from there.

And so from the Isa knockon Clermont had a scrum, which turned out to be the first penalty against Mike Ross. From the ensuing lineout came the lone Clermont try - when watched without the blue goggles was an absolute beauty given that it required everyone in a white jersey to not only know exactly what to do but do it perfectly.

After a bit of a sloppy set-piece they retrieved the ball and stacked the left wing with their powerful back three of Byrne (who has played himself firmly into Lions contention of late), Sivivatu and Nalaga. Once they had the ball in a bit of space out wide and started exchanging it back and forth to each other, a try seemed inevitable though thanks to a cracking Jennings/van der Merwe tackle, they stopped short of the line.

Just like that though the rest of the team clicked into gear, and here, in my view anyway, we saw the culmination of Cotter’s mental preparation. A standard ruck ensued from which Sivivatu and Bardy were perfectly positioned to throw blocks on the scrambling Leinster defenders as Parra fizzed an inch perfect long pass to Fofana and given his failure at the crucial moment in Bordeaux, it was with much irony that his outstretched arm got the ball down.

That was effectively the ball game. Leinster won the remainder of the contest 15-12 but at this stage, as they regrouped under the posts for Parra's conversion, they had been pulled apart by a clinical ten minute spell both with and without the ball that would have broken any side in Europe.

Of course although Clermont were setting the standard in every aspect of the game, we weren't exactly helping ourselves. The restart certainly wasn't the only set piece situation where we were far from perfect. Though we only lost two lineouts on our own throw, they were once again at key times. Ross had another nightmare in the scrum and possibly should have been taken off much earlier than he was...the last penalty he gave away came at a time when we still may have had a sniff at getting back into it.

And then there was the O'Brien yellow. Not the first time he's lost the head at the Aviva Stadium for Leinster. That's just the type of player he is, though I'm not altogether sure he actually meant to clobber Sivivatu in the face in the way the Clermont players’ reactions suggested. It was definitely clumsy and as you could see by his expression walking off, he knew it.

It kind of goes without saying that the penalty count against us could have been lower…I really thought we’d be able to match them for physicality (and legality) at the breakdown.  Though where in most writeups I’d be bemoaning a penalty like the one Cian Healy conceded late on that allowed them stretch their lead once again after our first try, I can’t blame him for taking a risk at that point given we still needed two scores to win.

As for Wayne Barnes, it would be easy to have a pop at him just for the sake of it, but I really do tire of looking to the ref as a scapegoat whoever it is. Sure, he missed Benjamin Kayser's transgression over the line to block Sexton's 22 drop-out but then again so did everyone else on the park. I reckon he was as unwilling to bring out his card as Nigel Owens had been last week, for repeated fouling anyway – O'Brien's no-no appeared to give him no choice.

LRvASM JenningsThe two late tries and the losing bonus point were a bit of a silver lining, especially the Jennings dot-down, coming as it did from a “first-man” attacking lineout throw I have been looking for from Leinster & Ireland for a long, long time. But overall it was a disheartening day for the blue faithful who have gotten accustomed to celebrating after big matches like this one.

So as Clermont march on in the competition as heavy favourites to make another trip to the Aviva Stadium in May, where does Leinster's season now stand?

Truth be told, I can't see us getting out of this pool now even with two bonus point wins. But does this mean we shouldn't go for it? God no. Now that the Dave Kearneys and Eoin O'Malleys are returning to fitness we'll need to use our squad wisely to meet the Scarlets with full force at the RDS in January, and should we get the right result there, we’ll head to Exeter with nothing to fear (yes I know the Chiefs have done well but if we're coming off a bonus point win at that stage, our own confidence will be high) and nothing to lose.

In the meantime, however, we have the small matter of a trip to Ravenhill this Friday, after a second six-day turnaround in a row, no less. It should be a match every bit as intense as those we have faced in the past two weeks and if there is indeed life left in our season, we need to show it then.

Definitely a big challenge lies ahead for Joe Schmidt and his crew. I know it's easy for me to say from behind my keyboard, but I have felt this season at crucial moments we have chosen to do the complicated thing when the simpler one would do. Much as Cotter has done and the Ospreys' Steve Tandy did for the second half of last season, they need to plan ahead and make the necessary tweaks to our game that will get our mojo back.

Having watched the “A” side win so convincingly at Donnybrook yesterday, not only do we have greats like O'Driscoll, Kearney and Fitzgerald to come back, and not only is there talent like Murphy, Ruddock & Ryan waiting in the wings, but also further down the assembly like there are names like Brendan Macken, Darren Hudson and (as I noticed yesterday) young Adam Byrne who can all do a job when it counts.

Let's just say I wouldn't rule out this Leinster side from lifting a trophy or two this season just yet.   And I also feel too much is being made of this “all four provinces losing in one weekend” thing…we should be proud of the fact it has been so long since it last happened as well as confident that it shouldn’t happen too often again in the future.

But as for Clermont and their amazing travelling fans, for two weeks where they certainly out-Leinstered us in every respect, félicitations. It certainly wasn't the first time an Irish side lost at the Aviva to a French one that included Rougerie & Parra despite scoring more tries! JLP

Also this weekend

Biarritz 17 - 0 Connacht

Edinburgh 3 - 15 Racing Metro

Benetton Treviso 13 - 14 Leicester Tigers

Ospreys 17 - 6 Toulouse

Harlequins 53 - 5 Zebre

Exeter Chiefs 30 - 20 Scarlets

Montpellier 34 - 21 Cardiff Blues

Ulster 9 - 10 Northampton Saints

Castres 10 - 8 Glasgow

Saracens 19 - 13 Munster

Toulon 62 - 0 Sale SharksHCup pool table

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