Monday, April 24, 2017

Clérmont-27 Leinster-22

“I’m so disappointed!”

The plan had almost worked perfectly.  Since the moment Leinster reached the last 8 of the Champions Cup I had been prepared for the possibility of my missing our semifinal, as the Sunday of that weekend happened to be my son’s 8th birthday.

So having temporarily deleted my Whatsapp, Twitter and Ultimate Rugby apps with their pesky notifications from my phone, I brought the young fellow and some of his friends to see Boss Baby (very funny) and followed it up with some burgers before coming home for present-opening, cake-scoffing and what-not.  A cracking day was had by all, I might add.  

It got to a stage where there were just a couple of his buddies waiting to be collected - we had the house pretty much back to normal and I was all set around 7pm to settle down and watch the match in both peace and blissful ignorance.  Ding dong went the doorbell.  It was the mother of one of our young guests.

During the polite chit chat at the door I noticed a Bank of Ireland logo protruding from her jacket at the neckline.  It was a Leinster jersey.  Ah, feck, she’s going to spoil it for me, isn’t she.  But she’s in full flow of conversation...I can’t possibly interrupt her can I?  

I thought I'd gotten away with it but just as she’s about to walk away with her son, she notices a Bank of Ireland logo protruding from the top my own hoody, also at the neckline...

“Awwww….you’re a Leinster fan too?”

“NOOOOO!” screamed my inner monologue. “Well, I mean yes to the question, but NOOOOOOOOOO as in STOP TALKING!!!!!”

I’m.  So.  Disappointed.   And there it was.  

Yet another reason for me to moan about the bloody banks!!!!

So now I’m asking myself...do I really want to watch this match twice like most weeks, taking notes for my Monday writeup as I go?  Or do I watch it once and record my thoughts straight away, leading off with the story of how I got "spoiled" to provide some light-hearted relief? 

Plan B it is.



OK here's how this is going to work...while I've been spoiled on who won I still don't actually know the final score as I type this.  

So just to be a bit different this week I'm going to watch the match 20 minutes at a time and harp on what I'm thinking during the intervals.

Minutes 0-20

Yikes!  Far from the start we wanted.  In my preview I spelled out just how much this competition means to Clérmont so to virtually gift them 15 points in the opening 20 minutes is inexcusable.

And yes, I mean gift them.  Sure, they were ready, willing and able to take advantage, but so far all I have seen from them is the level of intensity I was expecting from both sides.

But those lineouts...three lost on our own throw, each more shocking than than the last.

This was a failing of ours early in the season, namely wasting a good attacking opportunity by losing a lineout in their 22.  Going by the body language from Devin Toner, I got the impression his call for a long throw to the tail was due to specific requirements of a set play planned by the backs.

Well, maybe we can't always blame the hooker when this particular setpiece goes awry, but in this case we can.  Triggs was overthrown and the chance for an early lead was gone.

Next Garry Ringrose, for whom so much has gone right this season, tries a kick at midfield that just wasn't on, and moments later I thought he was at fault again when Strettle attempted a kick forward along the touchline - Nacewa was already tackling the Englishman yet Garry went for him too - that left Yato in the clear to run on to easily dot down.  Superb conversion from Parra, and hey presto.  Seven points down, nary 5 minutes on the clock.

There's still time for us to settle down, but the Clérmont back row have hit the ground running in this contest and when McFadden runs into contact with his clearout brigade a fraction too late, the penalty is conceded and when they kick to touch, their lineout makes no mistake.

Now we're having done to us what we planned earlier, with space out wide being exploited before the forwards arrive from the lineout.  A tug on the jersey by our skipper gets spotted, he rightly gets carded (I'd be moaning if it wasn't given with roles reversed).  Parra again lands the placekick, 10-0.

Well here's a chance now...we have a lineout in their half, time to make amends.  Surely we won't throw long again.  Except that we do.  Twice bitten now.  And with a ten-point cushion, ASM can now play a territory game so they push us back towards our own 22 where we have another lineout.

Hang on...we threw long AGAIN????  

There comes a time when pre-conceived tactics have to go out the window.  I don't care what weakness in Clérmont's D we spotted during the week that necessitated a throw to the back of the lineout...they weren't working so this call HAD to go short to Toner, end of.  But it didn't, Strauss' yips continued, we lost the ball, and just like that Strettle was using the space afforded by the extra man to dance around Dan Leavy for try number two.

We get to the twenty-minute mark needing three scores and having no joy to speak of at the breakdown.  In a way I'm kind of glad I wasn't watching this live; chances are I would've sent out a tweet that would make even Donald Trump blush!!!

21-40

We started this period with a defensive set that was much more like what we're used to seeing from Leinster this season, and we ended it with a decent set of attacking phases which finally got us into their 22 and took the duckegg off the scoreboard.

In between we were still struggling with the ball, often being masters of our own downfall with basic errors like McFadden slicing a kick into touch.  And we had a bit of luck back at our end as Parra missed a penalty making it five points Les Jaunards were leaving behind.

But you could see in our play as the clocked ticked down that we had far from given up, and the French outfit would have been made well aware of this fact during the halftime team talk.

40-60

When Nigel Owens was explaining to Isa Nacewa why his first half offence was a definite yellow card, I didn't have too many complaints.  Holding a player by the jersey is a way of deliberately disrupting a set play and clearly in "professional foul" territory, which is why we have the sanction.

But you could also make a case that when a team is attacking in the opposition 22 and seeking front foot ball at every ruck to keep it going, a defending forward committing a ruck infringement is doing exactly the same thing.

And from the start of the second half, Leinster were a team transformed, or at least they started playing as they should have done from the off - hitting Clérmont's defensive cordon in all the right spots, more often than not thanks to strong running by Rhys Ruddock.

Three times we threatened their 22, three times they shipped penalties.  No times did they receive a yellow card.  Still, Sexton was able to convert from the tee each time so we had the lead down to just three.

Now we get to the disallowed try, which was finished, and you could say also started, by Dan Leavy.  Is he holding Rougerie in the ruck?  Definitely.  Does it create the space that ultimately led to Leavy touching down?  Yeah, I guess it does, though if that kind of holding always gets called, we'd see a lot more tries called back.  I'm still willing to put it down to a good spot by the officials.

As a result instead of completing an amazing comeback by grabbing the lead, Parra stretches his side's advantage to six and as the clock ticks over sixty minutes, we actually manage to lose our first scrum feed of the entire competition so despite owning this quarter, things don't look too good for the final one.

61-80

Shouting at the TV over sport is never a good look for me, but when I'm doing it despite already knowing the result (and with sleeping kids upstairs) it's borderline pathetic!

But having had the match to this point pretty much defined by holding on to players, after we did well to hold out Clérmont from the advantage they gained off that scrum win, Isa hacks the ball forward with every chance of running on to it but was tackled off the ball - nothing done. 

From there you always knew the drop goal would be their tactic of choice - French sides have it in their back pocket in no matter what the match situation but the six-point lead made it a no-brainer and Camille Lopez is rather good at slotting them.  He nailed two in the final quarter that pretty much put this match to bed but in between them we at least had a touch of magic from our young outside centre.

Maybe he was at fault a bit in the first quarter but I have said this before of Ringrose...you think what we've seen from him so far is awesome?  Well the bulk of his highlight reel action, including this try, comes from his ability to create space out of nothing.  Imagine the heights he can reach when his backline's overall gameplan is designed to actually put him into space?

What seemed to be heading for a run of the mill series of midfield phases became a sevens-style finish thanks to multiple foot-plants that probably bamboozled his team-mates as much as the Clérmont players so the offload probably wasn't on!  An awesome score that could well catch Warren Gatland's attention with an injury or two in June.

There were a few more Leinster errors towards the end though they were mostly down to us chasing the game.  You certainly don't have to be a seasoned rugby pundit to know Leinster's chances of reaching the final in Edinburgh were well and truly spoiled by that first quarter.

Look...it's disappointing, of that there is no doubt, but it's done and there is much still to play for this season.

Had we managed to fight back and win, and let's face it we made a pretty damn good fist of it, my headline would probably have been something along the lines of "The Pride of Lyon".  But I still feel pride when it comes to our European campaign as a whole.  We belonged in that final four, and I wouldn't bet against us getting back there sooner rather than later.

Remember where we were last year in this competition?  Remember how many new faces we have added to the lineup this season?  I've seen more than enough from this squad to suggest that one day we'll be remembering that opening spell as a blip, so I'm not going to be harping too much on it for now.

I'm also immensely proud of the famed Leinster travelling support - great to hear the sound of Molly Malone backing up the boys in blue as they kept piling on the pressure in that second half.

And while often semifinals can leave some bad blood between the competing teams, though I rarely claim to speak for each and every Leinster supporter, I think I'm in safe territory when I say we're all behind ASM Clérmont Auvergne when they face Saracens in the final.  Though they have had much heartache in the past, this match definitely had a look of "this is their year" about it.  JLP

PS - Now I'm going to head over to the HarpinOnRugby Facebook page and see what readers thought as the full-time whistle blew.  Click here if you'd like to join me.
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