They’re already the proud owners of two Heineken Cup titles but Leinster’s defeat of Clermont Auvergne yesterday ranks comfortably alongside either one in the list of the province’s most noteworthy European achievements while setting them up for the greatest of them all.
Overcome Ulster in Twickenham next month, as they will be heavily favoured to do so, and the club will have claimed a third Heineken crown in four years. Even Toulouse, the long-acknowledged kings of European rugby, have never done that.
It was a titanic struggle of a game between two Godzillas of the game and it went right down to the wire, just as everyone predicted it would, with Leinster having to hold on by their fingernails in the face of a last, desperate siege on their line.
Wesley Fofana managed to cross it with 69 seconds to go for what would have been the winning score but the TMO ruled he lost the ball just prior to the attempted touchdown. Even then, another three minutes of near-panic and mass defence ensued before Wayne Barnes called time.
Joe Schmidt’s side will have reason to be thankful to the English referee who was anything but the sort of home town official that has blighted many of rugby’s biggest occasions down the years, not least in France in front of such passionate support.
It was a staggering achievement by the Irish side who join Munster as the only foreign team to emerge from a semi-final on French soil victorious and they did it in front of a 32,397 crowd where their support was outnumbered ten to one by the yellow hordes.
It was a scene afforded further colour by the blue sky and sunshine that finally broke through yesterday morning after three weeks of rain and the hope was that the conditions would be dry enough and fast enough to suit the quicker game favoured by Leinster.
It looked that way for the first 15 minutes in which Leinster dominated in terms of both territory and possession and early line breaks from Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa were rewarded with an opening penalty for the Irish out-half.
Clermont weren’t helped by the loss to injury of wing Julien Malzieu and Welsh full-back Lee Byrne inside that first quarter but there were one or two ominous signs already beginning to darken Leinster’s day at the setpiece.
Richardt Strauss finished the half with three lost line-outs and the Irish pack was creaking, if not cracking, at scrum-time. The last 25 minutes of the half were spent fire-fighting as Clermont slowly but surely turned the screw.
Brock James cancelled out Sexton’s opening penalty after 18 minutes and Clermont followed it up with a Sitiveni Sivivatu break down their right wing from the restart. Only a knock-on a handful of phases later relieved the mounting pressure.
Temporarily, that is.
Leinster had started the game playing with pace — both at the breakdown and through the hands — but Clermont’s more deliberate attacking style was equally effective. More so, perhaps, given the amount of penalties it began to squeeze from the champions.
Leo Cullen appeared lucky to escape with no more than a stern talking-to from the referee after apparently swinging an arm at the admittedly theatrical prop Lionel Faure in one ruck but the game was largely devoid of any malice.
The margin was 12-6 to Clermont at the half, James succeeding with all four pops at the post and Sexton likewise with the two he was afforded. The second came when Nacewa was obstructed by Sivivatu as he chased a ‘garryowen’. It was a welcome morsel at a time of great need and Leinster profited again when Clermont’s notoriously stingy defence went AWOL for a split second just three minutes into a second-half that matched in intensity everything that went before. And them some.
Clermont may have dropped their guard after Barnes raised his arm to signal a penalty. Or maybe not. Either way, Strauss’s pop pass duly sent Rob Kearney blazing through the midfield. Cian Healy applied the finish and Sexton the conversion.
Four minutes later and Leinster’s one-point lead was stretched to four thanks to Kearney’s monster drop goal and, though James replied with his fifth penalty soon after, the game entered its first real lull with Irish noses just in front.
The wave of reinforcements duly arrived off both benches but Leinster, whose scrum and lineout both solidified in that second-half, continued to enjoy the upper-hand the clock wound down, appeared in better shape physically. Sexton added another penalty with a quarter still to play as the war of attrition became a frenzied battle and Leinster’s lead was inches away from being seven when a Sexton penalty was ruled outside the upright after a consultation between Wayne Barnes and the TMO.
Little did we know that the drama was only beginning.
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie, W Fofana, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; L Faure, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, E Vermeulen.
Replacements: JM Buttin for Malzieu (13); R King for Byrne (20); V Debaty for Faure (49); J Bardy for Vermeulen (54); J Pierre for Hines (57); D Kotze for D Zirakashvili (59); T Paulo for Kayser (64).
LEINSTER: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen, B Thorn, S O’Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip.
Replacements: E Reddan for Boss (53); H van der Merwe for Healy (55); S Cronin for Strauss (63); K McLaughlin for Jennings (63); F McFadden foir Fitzgerald (63.
Referee: W Barnes (England).