Margins slim but same blue feeling for unlucky Leinster

Never again let it be said that you need the perfect performance to win a European semi-final in France.

Margins slim but same blue feeling for unlucky Leinster

All last week, we had Leinster players, coaches and supporters trotting out that line. The media, too. This despite the ample evidence we already had in our possession that this wasn’t a case of stretching the truth so much as one of abandoning with it altogether.

Leinster pitched up in Toulouse five years ago without Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Luke Fitzgerald and fell just 10 points short of the continent’s aristocrats despite a performance riddled with individual mistakes.

Two years later and they were similarly profligate and yet Clermont Auvergne were still beaten in a game that was decided only in injury-time when Wesley Fofana spilled the ball just a nanosecond before touching down with what would have been the game-winning try.

That’s most semi-finals for you: nervy, cagey affairs where nous and grit count for most. Yesterday’s game, despite featuring two sides who have claimed the last four European titles between them was the epitome of that. It was, frankly, turgid stuff.

It’s not all that long since All Blacks coach Steve Hansen spoke of his fear for the future of the game on the back of so much uninspiring rugby in the Six Nations and this was as bad, if not worse, than anything witnessed in that seven-week period.

One wag suggested as extra-time loomed that perhaps Jarlath Burns, who declared the death of Gaelic football after a Dublin-Derry league game recently, might perhaps do something similar on the back of a most uninspiring afternoon of rugby.

Chuck in Saturday’s meeting of Clermont Auvergne and Saracens in St Etienne and what you had over the weekend was 180 minutes of rugby between the four best clubs sides in Europe and the grand total of just three tries. Take away extra-time and that total was one.

Are you not entertained?

Ultimately, none of that really mattered. What frustrated far more than the complete absence of quality was Leinster’s failure to capitalise against a Toulon side that was there for the taking.

Make no mistake, this defeat will haunt those players and their coaches for a long, long time.

Ian Madigan will rue that penalty that hit the post, Jimmy Gopperth his conversion that grazed the other one and the drop goal with two minutes of normal time remaining that just might have shaved some paint as it floated wide.

Such slim margins.

The omens had not been good. The grey skies and teeming rain that arrived a few hours before kick-off evinced memories of that loss in Toulouse in 2010 when the locals and visitors huddled together under awnings and overpasses drinking their beer and wine.

There were less of those in blue in Marseille, their numbers restricted to a couple of small pockets lost amidst the masses of ‘rouge et noir’.

‘Esprit Leinster, y es-tu?’ was a headline in L’Equipe yesterday morning. The message was clear, even for those with the least smattering of French and, though they showed spirit, they lacked for too much else on a day that could and maybe should have rescued their season.

The basics were present and correct.

A strong scrum and solid lineout gave them a platform and a defence that had leaked like a paper hat in a rain storm in recent weeks was breached only once, and that because of an ill-advised Ian Madigan looped pass that was intercepted by Bryan Habana.

What was missing was a killer instinct, something whose absence has been commented on previously this season and not least when allowing positions of dominance to evaporate in round six against Wasps and in the quarter-final against Bath.

Yesterday, it was a run of 49 minutes without a score that undid them. That and the concession of 10 points to that converted Habana try and a Leigh Halfpenny penalty just after Ali Wiliams had been sent to the sinbin.

Would Leinster of 2012 or even 2010 have allowed that to happen? You doubt it. That win against Clermont in Bordeaux three years ago, for instance, stands as a masterclass in how to pull victory out of a bag labelled ‘defeat’.

Added to the frustration is the knowledge that Twickenham would have stood as something akin to a ‘home’ venue for the province had they made it to the final, even with Clermont’s travelling army of supporters taken into account.

Just another reason to rue this one that got away.

What was missing yesterday was a killer instinct, something whose absence was commented on previously this season

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