In a raucous and colour-drenched Stade Chaban-Delmas, Leinster edged out French heavyweights Clermonts in an absolute dogfight of a semi-final.
It’s not that the match was bereft of skill – there were beautiful offloads and passes from both sides, intuitive lines of running and top-quality goal-kicking – but it was the tempo and sheer physical aggression of the game that were the most memorable factors. Leinster deservedly have the reputation of a ‘finesse’ team, but this semi-final was a reminder that when they have to come off the ropes and go toe-to-toe, they’ve got the chin and the guts to duke it out with the biggest and the baddest around.
Set Piece Wobbles
With that said, they had to take two to give one with a badly malfunctioning lineout and an iffy scrum. Lionel Faure had a definitive edge on Mike Ross until the French veteran was substituted for the enormous Belgian Vincent Debaty, against whom the Irish tighthead had more success – with the obvious exception of the last scrum of the game. Faure turns 35 years old later this year and Debaty is a current international, but his removal from the pitch after just eight minutes of the second half was premature – Vern Cotter handing Leinster the first of two lifelines.
Help From An Unlikely Source
What seemed like an even bigger error in judgment was the substitution of Nathan Hines just eight minutes later. Hines was the standout forward on the pitch – not bad when you have the likes of Julien Bonnaire, Sean O’Brien, Brad Thorn, David Zirakashvili and Jamie Heaslip up for the nomination – who was causing Leinster huge problems in every single facet of play. His work at restarts was not just impeccably skillful in terms of taking difficult ball under pressure, but also casually inventive as to how he offloaded the pill and created a little space for the receiver. In open play his ability to eat up the yards, take the tackle on his own terms and offload sympathetically to a trailing runner gave the Leinster defense serious headaches. Given that your second rows are key players in the success of the tight set-pieces – the scrum and the lineout – he can also take a good deal of credit for his team’s advantage in those parts of the game whilst he was still on the pitch. Cotter’s decision to substitute him seemed a poor call at the time, though Hines has since revealed that he picked up a significant rib cartilage injury .
In light of that piece of information, Cotter’s decision might well have been made for him. The Wagga Wagga man is as hard a player as they come, both physically and mentally: Hines played all bar two minutes of Leinster’s two semis and finals last season and he’s been a tough cookie all his life. So has Leinster’s Brad Thorn, who was left out there for the full eighty – and he’s the guts of two years older than Hines!
It’s difficult not to believe that this was exactly the sort of game for which the All Black legend signed up. He’s obviously been involved in bigger games – the World Cup final is only six months ago, after all – but Super Rugby doesn’t quite capture the imagination of the southern hemisphere fans the way that the Heineken Cup does for their European counterparts. You might have to go back to his rugby league days in the State of Origin games to find a comparable atmosphere in the stands.
It’s Neutral In That It’s Not In The Same City …
Much was made of the fact that Clermont fans had to travel to Bordeaux, rather than play in their first choice stadium of Lyon, but they arrived yellow-clad in huge numbers, flag-waving, face-painted, horn-blowing and whistling, and the Chaban-Delmas was almost the Marcel Michelin for the day. Every decision against their team was greeted with derision, but Clermont have a well-earned reputation for pushing the boundaries of the law at the breakdown – they hang on to people well past the ball, they pull uninvolved players into rucks and their front five sandbag over the ball if it’s in doubt – and Wayne Barnes wasn’t afraid to ping them for it.
Leinster are no saints either and were pinged a number of times for side entry. It seemed to The Mole that Leinster’s penalties weren’t quite as cheap as Clermont’s: the blues would go for the side entry as a sort of ‘any means necessary’ tactic when they had an isolated ball-carrier who was in danger of being turned over, while Clermont players sealed off the ball or refused to roll away from the tackled player when there was no immediate need for them to do so.
According to ESPN Scrum.com, the penalty count was even at 14-14, and aside from one snapped-at effort from Brock James and a Sexton attempt that was deemed to have gone directly over the top of the upright, both goal-kickers were Dead-Eye Dicks with a placed ball. Both halves started with Leinster far quicker out of the blocks and finished with Clermont coming on strong, but while the middle of the first period was heavily slanted towards Clermont, the middle of the second half was all Leinster.
Morgan Parra had a quite ordinary game on the skills front, twice passing the ball to the deck in promising attacking positions for his team: while the pace was frenetic, his uneven performance was in stark contrast to the control that Dmitri Yachvili was able to give Biarritz in horrific conditions the previous day in the Amlin semi-final against Brive. At scrum-half for Leinster, Isaac Boss had a fine fifty, as crafty and disruptive as ever, although Sivivatu absolutely did him down the touchline following another piece of Nathan Hines restart magic. Eoin Reddan’s arrival ten minutes into the second half ushered in a period of Leinster control, the champions using their equivalent of a ‘hurry-up offense’ to keep the ball in the Clermont half and ask questions across the width of the park. Mike Ross had a sterling ten metre carry up the middle with tacklers falling off him, and Sean O’Brien broke off a cracking run which started with him bursting through a Fofana-Vermeulen double-tackle when it looked like there wasn’t much on.
Big Game Hunters
This was Brian O’Driscoll’s fifth start since his return from surgery, and while there was serious concern that his shoulder/neck injury would be a career-ender, he has thrown himself into contact as recklessly as ever. His first tackle on Rougerie – who’s some 15cm [6"] and 10kg [23lbs] heavier than him – set the tone for the Leinster defensive display, shaking the Clermont talisman down to his boots. After struggling to get into the game against a side who were obviously wary of kicking to him, Rob Kearney had a remarkable ten minutes after halftime, slicing through the Clermont defense to set up the only try of the game, making a 70m gain with a monster touch finder and dropping a goal from wide on the left on the 10m line. His displays this season have been out of the top drawer, and he has well-earned his nomination for IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year.
The much-anticipated showdown between Kearney and 2009 Lions rival Lee Byrne never really happened. Les Jaunards were called upon to use their bench earlier than they would have wanted, with Julien Malzieu replaced after only twelve minutes by the sumptuously talented youngster Jean-Marcel Buttin; Buttin then had to switch to fullback [with Rougerie moving one out to the wing and Regan King coming on at second centre] when Byrne came off the pitch less than ten minutes later. It wasn’t immediately clear what was the cause of either injury, although Malzieu may have carried a bad calf into the match.
Buttin had an exceptional game, twice getting away one-handed offloads behind the Leinster defense when double-teamed in the tackle. It’s no big call to say that this chap looks destined for a long and fruitful international career. One player who has prematurely called a halt to his own international career is former All Black winger Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was nothing short of outstanding; he popped up all over the pitch and his combination of physical strength, sevens-style lines and beautiful handling made him the most dangerous runner on the pitch, bar none.
However, it’s difficult to overestimate the influence that Jonny Sexton had on the game. He twice sliced open the Clermont defense with two line breaks out of his own 22, and didn’t throw a bad pass all day. Leinster played attacking, ball-in-hand rugby from the kick-off, and while Sexton didn’t quite have a perfect day [he miscued one penalty clearance badly and had the aforementioned near-miss with his last kick at goal], he was excellent in all elements of play: he made good decisions in attack and kept Leinster on the front foot for the majority of the second half.