Leinster take positives from bonus point loss

JOE SCHMIDT wasn’t interested in talk of a ‘good defeat’ but this was surely the closest thing to it.

Without Brian O’Driscoll, RobKearney and Luke Fitzgerald, Leinster suffered the additional blow of losing Jamie Heaslip to injury shortly after the break against a side whose strength in depth was staggering.

Vern Cotter called Julien Pierre, Elvis Vermeulen, Mario Ledesma and Lionel Faure off the bench so the under strength visitors were full value for the losing bonus point which may prove their ticket from this pool.

That was the case for Munster who departed these shores with a similar haul twice before and there were shades here, too, of Leinster’s seven-point loss to Wasps at Twickenham on the way to claiming the trophy two years ago.

As was the case in London, when Wasps opted for the posts instead of a try scoring opportunity at the death, Leinster owed something to luck with Morgan Parra fluffing a simple penalty attempt with five minutes to play.

Clermont were left rueing their profligacy and will need to undo some of that damage Saturday in Dublin and yet it is a measure of Leinster’s ambition that they were miffed at not collecting four points instead of one.

As it was, it wasn’t a bad return to his former club for Schmidt and he will have had more to smile about than just the point when he returned to Dublin on the team’s chartered flight yesterday.

The names of Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden don’t turn as many heads as those listed above — yet — but both backs slipped seamlessly into the starting 15 while Dominic Ryan made a huge impact after replacing Heaslip.

Played out in front of over 16,000 raucous supporters — about 400 of them Irish — the cauldron-like atmosphere got the game it deserved and the opening quarter was a veritable riot of explosive, running rugby.

Leinster drew first blood through a Shane Horgan try and what a beauty it was. It started with a turnover in their own half and employed all manner of offloads and running angles before the wing touched down in the right corner.

Gordon D’Arcy opened the horizons with a run through the centre and it was his looped pass to Jonathan Sexton a number of phases later that created the overlap which not even a deliberate knock-on from Julien Malzieu could halt.

Sexton’s conversion ensured the perfect start for the visitors but all that drive and invention was cancelled out just two minutes later after a similar multi-phase move that weaved from one corner of the pitch to the next.

Malzieu finished in the left corner but Leinster were complicit in the score and will cringe at the video replays.

As their record shows, Clermont are a dangerous animal when their blood is up at home but Leinster didn’t panic or fold and, crucially, their scrum stood up to the task eight months after being destroyed by these same opponents.

Sexton and Morgan Parra traded penalties after the initially blistering pace came down a few notches and a missed Anthony Floch drop goal three minutes from half-time allowed Leinster retire at the interval on level terms.

It was a hiatus they seemed to need more, as, slowly but surely, the French champions gradually turned the screw as darkness began to fall and they started the second period in the same vein.

Leinster weren’t helped by the injury which forced Heaslip off two minutes after the restart and, in the 53rd minute, they were breached for a second time.

The initial damage was done down the left flank with a number of localised probes but it was a long, looping pass from Brock James to Naipolioni Nalaga out right that got the sirens going and Floch was over seconds later.

With seven points separating them, Leinster now had little room for error but they were afforded some space when Clermont were penalised for entering a ruck from the side and Sexton slotted the penalty.

Unfortunately, the gap was soon back to seven after Parra made Cian Healy pay for going in off his feet but yet again Leinster refused to bow to the pressure like so many visitors to the Stade Marcel Michelin before them have.

Though Clermont started to unload their star-packed bench, the Irish province began to gain parity in the possession and territory stakes and came within inches of crossing the home line with 16 minutes to go.

Their momentum was stalled when Shane Jennings was pinged for a double movement within spitting distance of the end zone and that was as close either team came to adding to their haul until Parra’s skewed shot.

ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: A Floch; N Nalaga, A Rougerie, G Canale, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, T Paulo, M Scelzo; L Jacquet, T Privat; J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, S Lauaki.

Replacements: D Zirakashvili for Scelzo (40); J Pierre for Jacquet (50); E Vermeulen for Privat (69); M Ledesma for Paulo (69); L Faure for Domingo (71).

LEINSTER: I Nacewa; S Horgan, E O’Malley, G D’Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen, N Hines; S O’Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Replacements: D Ryan for Heaslip (42); C Healy for van der Merwe (55); E Reddan for Boss (62); C Newland for Ross (71).

Referee: W Barnes (England).

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