Blues short in game of inches

Clermont Auvergne 15 Leinster 12

Blues short in game of inches

That depends on your perspective.

Leinster’s Heineken Cup ambitions remain alight after this bruising encounter but the reigning champions returned to Ireland late last night cursing their failure to claim four points rather than just the one.

The fear last week was that a weakened Leinster could well endure the kind of beating they hadn’t experienced in all of five years and yet they fashioned a wonderful opportunity to do what no team has managed since Biarritz 37 months ago by winning here.

The losing bonus point may well be the difference between making it out of Pool Five next month and not but, with Clermont now five points to the good, the reigning champions will in all likelihood have to finish as one of the two best runners-up to do so.

This was a brutal grind of a match between two sides who have come to know each other as well as their most keen domestic rivals in recent seasons and the extent of the stakes involved was apparent in the litany of errors that blighted this game.

Leinster’s regrets at failing to complete this mission impossible were understandable but their ability to go toe to toe with a side of Clermont’s quality and depth was worthy of praise given they travelled minus the services of key men such as Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney.

Such losses, allied to a season of stutters thus far, left them vulnerable and Clermont of all teams will have been exhilarated by the scent of blood given the Irish province had been complicit in thwarting their European ambitions three times in the last four seasons.

It was impossible to exaggerate Clermont’s qualifications. Impressive yet again on the domestic scene this year, their average of over 47 points in the opening two rounds of the Heineken Cup stood as a tournament record and no other side had earned more yards in possession during those opening weeks in October.

Such stats will have decreased significantly yesterday after a game where inches were as good as miles and the bish and bosh wasn’t always limited to the square foot or so surrounding the pill. This was trench warfare rugby style, with no quarter asked or given.

Leinster flew into a grim and cold Clermont on the Saturday but game day broke bright and the warmth in the sun’s rays were mirrored by the heartfelt welcome the home crowd offered their visitors and Joe Schmidt on his second return to his old stomping ground.

One wonders what it must have felt like for the visitors in those minutes prior to leaving the embrace of their dressing room as 17,760 people stomped their feet and serenaded their heroes but the visitors coped comfortably enough for the opening 40 minutes.

True, there were a few errant kicks, the odd dropped ball and spurned tackle but the opening half passed without either side threatening to forage behind the other’s posts. Both managed to register a handful of line breaks without reward.

Clermont landed the first blow when Mike Ross was pinged at scrum time by Nigel Owens which allowed Morgan Parra to clip over his first penalty of the afternoon with three minutes on the clock.

Ian Madigan and Aurelien Rougerie manufactured the best running plays in the first quarter but, for the most part, it was a game of ‘anything you can do…’ between Parra and Jonathan Sexton in front of goals.

By the break, the French scrum-half had kicked four from four and the Irish out-half three from four, although Brock James tacked on a drop goal in the period’s last act to leave the home side six points to the good.

Half time has served as something of a release valve for many a game in any number of codes but not here. If anything, the second half offered even less in the way of space and more of the same old grunt, grind and sheer graft.

Again, there were mistakes aplenty. Twice Clermont foraged into Leinster’s 22 and on both occasions they coughed up the ball through Rougerie and Alexandre Lapandry, while Leinster’s attempts to build momentum were stymied by a rapidly misfiring lineout.

It was shortly after the interval when Sexton went for broke, spurning a kickable penalty to send a boot crossfield towards Fergus McFadden, who just failed to collect in front of Naipolioni Nalaga.

The Clermont wing was a bag of nerves under the high ball on an afternoon when he was targeted constantly but it was a big call and one that remained open for questioning given Sexton’s fourth penalty shortly after was the only score in the second half.

CLERMONT: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; V Debaty, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines; J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, D Chouly.

Replacements: R Chaume for Debaty (54); T Paulo for Kayser (60); D Kotze for Zirakashvili (61); J Pierre for Cudmore (67); J Bardy for Bonnaire (79).

LEINSTER: I Madigan; F McFadden, G D’Arcy, A Goodman, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen, D Browne; K McLaughlin, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.

Replacements: R Strauss for Cronin (49); D Toner for Browne (57); S Jennings O’Brien (65); for E Reddan for Boss (65).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).

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