Bloodied Leinster show champions’ mettle

FOR the third season in-a-row, the best two sides in the Heineken Cup meet outside the decider itself.

In last season’s classic semi-final in Bordeaux, Clermont fluffed their lines in the final act when Wesley Fofana failed to ground the ball in the act of scoring. Had he done so, not only would they have won the game but in all probability, the tournament itself. Clermont sensed that too, so on this occasion the sight of the Leinster jersey was always going to incite a big reaction.

For the fourth time in five seasons, we travelled to the magnificent Stade Marcel Michelin in the hope of seeing an Irish side breach an impregnable fortress. Their current unbeaten run extended to 50 games before this contest — now make that 51. Twice Munster and more recently Leinster were happy to make a hasty retreat with a losing bonus point in the bag after being stretched to the limit by the brilliance of the home side. Indeed, despite defeat on two of those occasions, the losing side went on to capture the trophy, Munster in 2008 and Leinster in 2011. What chance history repeating itself once again on that front for Leinster?

The minimum requirement therefore for the reigning champions was to survive without getting mauled with the procurement of a losing bonus point a victory in itself, especially with the opportunity to rectify the damage on home soil next Saturday.

That is exactly what Leinster did. It is a tribute to their hunger and commitment that they were disappointed at the end because they had opportunities to win this fascinating contest in the second half. Jonny Sexton, who once again had a massive game, had a chance to level the game in the early stages of the second half but chose to gamble with a crossfield kick to the unmarked Fergus McFadden, who unfortunately couldn’t reclaim possession with the try line beckoning.

Leinster have struggled to find their true rhythm and form this season and the break for the November internationals robbed them of the momentum they craved coming into a contest of this nature. Yet with the need at its greatest, and questions beginning to be asked, the desire that has landed three Heineken Cups over the last four seasons was very much in evidence in this gripping contest.

This titanic struggle for supremacy will bring Leinster on leaps and bounds for next weekend’s rematch at the Aviva Stadium, but they know that some aspects of their game need work. Their lineout, which was imperious in the opening half, suffered when Richardt Strauss was introduced off the bench and the fact that he has had limited time of late to work with Leo Cullen, Damien Browne and Devin Toner proved costly when over-throwing in productive attacking positions in the key final quarter. That needs to be addressed.

If all else fails the one thing you can bank on with this Leinster side is their work rate and organisation in defence. It has been the cornerstone of all those Heineken Cup successes and once again, when Clermont threatened to overrun the holders, Leinster refused to be breached. In the opening two pool games of this year’s tournament, Clermont registered an astonishing 12 tries against Exeter Chiefs and Scarlets, averaging 47 points a game. To keep them tryless, at home for 80 minutes was an astonishing achievement and will stand to Leinster for the challenges ahead.

It helped that Andrew Goodman, an unknown quantity coming into the game, struck up a very good understanding with Gordon D’Arcy who was playing at outside centre in this tournament for the first time in eight years. Goodman has captained most of the sides he has played with in New Zealand and wasn’t in the least fazed with the pace and intensity of the game.

Time and again when the smart interplay between Aurelian Rougerie, Lee Byrne and Sitiveni Sivivatu threatened to open Leinster up, the visitors trusted themselves and made all the right decisions to keep their line intact. That is the hallmark of a great side, especially as Brian O’Driscoll has directed Leinster’s defensive efforts for so long.

Of equal importance, Leinster’s interplay in attack was back to its best and had Clermont reeling at times. D’Arcy marked the occasion of becoming the most capped Leinster player in Heineken Cup history with as good a performance as he has ever given. He seems to be revelling in the extra space afforded his in the outside channels and his battle with Rougerie, both in attack and defence, was a joy to watch. It was clear there is massive respect between the two individuals and neither was prepared to give an inch. In the absence of O’Driscoll, the Wexford man took on additional responsibility and was, along with McFadden, an inspirational figure in the Leinster backline.

To survive and compete in France at this level requires a massive effort from the front five, with the scrum the badge of honour. As with Ulster in Franklins Gardens on Friday night, Leinster scrummaged magnificently, with Cian Healy and Mike Ross grinding it out against two separate Clermont frond rows for the entire 80 minutes. One effort which yielded a penalty in the 52nd minute when Clermont were shunted backwards, rocked the home team to the core. Their raucous supporters are not used to that happening.

Quite why Joe Schmidt failed to introduce Ireland’s latest tight head acquisition Michael Bent was a bit of a mystery to me as I would have loved to see him show his capabilities against opposition of this quality. Notwithstanding that, Schmidt used his bench superbly and having the facility to introduce highly experienced campaigners like Eoin Reddan, Shane Jennings and Strauss is a must if you want to win this tournament.

While the front row deserve special praise, Leo Cullen, in the twilight of a fantastic career, was immense in all facets of play. He was the go-to man for all the key Leinster lineouts and was a source of annoyance to Clermont at the breakdown throughout. At times he played on the edge but somehow managed to stay in the good books of referee Nigel Owens who, to his credit, failed to be intimidated.

All roads now lead to the Aviva next Saturday for the next instalment in this fascinating battle for supremacy, with the odds now very much in Leinster’s favour.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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