Tributes no use to Leinster

Champions Cup

Tributes no use to Leinster

Leinster almost beat themselves with a disastrous opening quarter to this Champions Cup semi-final, so to think they went on to almost beat Clermont Auvergne on French soil too is a testament to the character and class of Leo Cullen’s team.

No amount of praise will console them today, but the ability of the three-time champions to pick themselves up off the canvas and trade punches with the Top 14 side made for an afternoon of absolutely epic proportions.

Frustration was the word the Leinster head coach reached for afterwards.

No surprise when you just look at the bare stats: 58% possession, 55% territory, 70 more carries, over 300 metres more eked out, 20 more defenders beaten and far fewer tackles made.

And all this without the injured Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, and Rob Kearney and with Cian Healy suspended.

It bodes well for the future of this team of old hands and young bucks, but the omens for the here and now had been so promising.

The day was hot, 18 degrees and sunny, as was much the case five years ago when Leinster saw off Clermont in a Heineken Cup semi-final for the ages.

Even the charming but ancient old ground in Lyon held echoes of the dated stadium in Bordeaux back in 2012.

That feelgood factor lasted minutes with Leinster conceding a penalty within moments of kicking off and then overthrowing a lineout when in the opposition 22.

The tin hat was Garry Ringrose lofting a bizarre chip through traffic that set the platform for Clermont’s first try.

The French made a ridiculous amount of ground down Leinster’s left flank in the opening half. David Strettle was accounting for a lot of it, but it was a perfectly weighted chip ahead by the wing that allowed flanker Peceli Yato to dot down.

Five minutes had gone.

A bad opening got much, much worse when Isa Nacewa yanked Strettle back as the Englishman threatened his touchline yet again and, though the captain saved a try then, he was penalised with a yellow card and a penalty from Morgan Parra to add to his first conversion.

Leinster were leaking holes all over.

Richardt Strauss lost three of his first four lineouts, missed tackles were mounting up, and so were penalties against with Clermont dominating the breakdown on both sides of the ball, as Leinster insisted on moving it wide early, without sourcing the resulting rucks.

Clermont’s second try surprised no-one. Neither did the scorer, with Strettle popping through a yard of space, if that, and past Dan Leavy down the same left wing which Nacewa had temporarily vacated just a few minutes earlier.

Things got better after that. Gradually.

Leavy landed a massive hit that led to a rare turnover in their favour, Rhys Ruddock was carrying with effect throughout the worst of it all and Jack Conan took his lead in shrugging off a would-be tackler in a statement of intent.

One breakout from their own 22 was ended just inside the Clermont half when that man Strettle did enough with a tackle to force Joey Carbery into a forward pass while Clermont almost struck on the counter themselves, only for Scott Spedding to be swallowed up 20 metres out.

Another try then for the Top 14 side and it would have been mission impossible for the Irish province but, with Parra missing a subsequent penalty and Jonathan Sexton landing Leinster’s first points in first-half injury-time, there was a clear sense of a corner having been turned.

The third quarter confirmed it. Leinster, playing with the same fluidity now and ambition that marked their comprehensive defeat of Wasps in the last round, took the game to a Clermont side that began to rack up the penalties in an attempt to thwart the mounting siege.

That kept their line intact, but three penalties by Sexton brought the gap back to just three points — 15-12 — before the game’s decisive chapter unfolded approaching the hour and it was Leavy who would play the role of key protagonist.

The young flanker touched down for what appeared to be the Irish side’s first try after a stunning break from his own 22 by Fergus McFadden and excellent support play and distribution the length of the field by Sexton and Robbie Henshaw.

The problem was an infringement at the onset by Leavy and, with the TMO spotting his tug on Aurelien Rougerie at the ruck, the net result was a penalty for Clermont in the Leinster 22 and another three points for Parra.

Quite the swing and the momentum swung with it.

Another penalty for Parra and a drop goal for Camille Lopez seemed to put the game out of Leinster’s reach for good, but Garry Ringrose rekindled hope by burning Damien Penaud and dummying Speddin for a breathtaking solo try that will multiply the ‘BOD’ comparisons.

You wonder, too, what Warren Gatland made of it.

Ultimately, it counted for zero here, as Clermont kept their necks in front from there to the finish, but the manner of the celebrations as the last whistle blew said it all for how close Leinster had come to making the final against Saracens after that horrific start.

CLERMONT:

S Spedding; D Strettle, A Rougerie, R Lamerat, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; R Chaume, B Kayser, D Kirashvili; A Iturria, S Vahaamahina; D Chouly, P Yato, F Lee.

Replacements:

J Ulugia for Kayser and J Lapandry for Yato (both 55); D Penaud for Rougerie (57); P Fernandez for Lamerat (66); P Jedrasiak for Vahaamahina and L Radosavljevic for Parra (both 70).

LEINSTER:

J Carbery; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, R Strauss, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; R Ruddock, D Leavy, J Conan.

Replacements:

S Cronin for Strauss (50); R Molony for Triggs and P Dooley for J McGrath (both 61); J van der Flier for Leavy and J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (65); M Bent for Furlong (71); Z Kirchner for McFadden (72).

Referee:

N Owens (WRU).

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