Match Reaction: Clermont Auvergne 15 – 19 Leinster

Vintage Drico.

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.

Nobody wants to see a player go to pieces on the big occasion, and Brock James bounced back from his one botched kick – which was just outside his range, and which he probably tried to hit too hard – with one of those relatively straight forward ones barely two minutes afterwards which can really test your bottle. He nailed 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, 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.

Scrum-Half Skirmishes

Morgan Parra was just a scrum-half for Clermont, not the game-changer that he has been in the past. His delivery was poor on several occasions, and he was obviously under instructions not to box-kick to the Leinster back three.

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.

Rob Kearney rarely had the opportunity to display his aerial prowess, but he took the chance to throw some light on his other talents with a huge drop-goal out of nothing and some booming clearances.

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.

12 thoughts on “Match Reaction: Clermont Auvergne 15 – 19 Leinster

  1. If only this belligerence could be translated to the Irish team. Ulster have scored the most tries in the Rabo (50+ if memory serves) and Leinster 45+. they should be the two feeder teams. Obviously O’Connell Earls and O’Gara should be in the mix, but Tuohy needs take the mantle from Donnacha O’Callaghan. Chris Henry should be 7 with O’brien and Heaslip alternating at 8 ie one on the bench. Munster will return in a couple of years to greatness with players like Zebo Ryan et al but for now the 2 teams competing the final should have the lions share of the places on the NZ tour. But will Deccie do this? Probably not
    But great to have 2 irish teams in the final. Remember in 09 Leinster weren’t given a chance in the semis lets hope the same thing doesn’t happen, with Ulster as the underdogs. I think it will be an absolute war of attrition, both teams got their the hard way (getting to a final is always hard but Ulster going to Thomond and Leinster going to France, doesn’t get much harder than that) so it will be an absolute cracker to end all crackers

    • You are forgeting that it is now received wisdom that success in the ERC is at the expense of the success of the national side. It naturally follows that the Irish side to go to take their beatings in NZ should be composed mostly of the Munster contingent. Connaught can come too.

      • I forgot to say that I wished it translated to the national level. It’s funny how 2 of the best teams in the 6 nations had no H Cup semi final presence and the 3 worst (bar Italy) had all the presence. Seems really counter-intuitive but thats rugby

    • Chris Henry?!? pull the other one. O’Mahony is much better even if you don’t think he’s an out and out 7. Also have you retired Fez? i don’t think he’ll like that. Here’s to a cracker of a final anyway.

      • It was clearly implied that Fez would be the blindside with the 2 Leinster boys vying for number 8 and if you think o’mahony is playing better than Henry at the moment, you are clearly from Munster.

      • Nah mate got blue blood in my veins. Nothing against Henry or Ulster I just think O’Mahony has much more international potential due to the fact he’s 5 years younger and already has 4 caps to Henry’s 1. Henry is like P.Wallace good club player but not a starting international.

  2. Just as Ulster were probably the only team in Europe who could go to Thomond expecting to beat Munster, so also will they believe in their ability to beat Leinster. Ulster and their supporters thrive as the unpopular underdogs and will go to Twickenham with much more belief than any other set of supporters. This Leinster team will take some beating but Ulster will believe that they can and should be the team to do it.

    Should be interesting to see how it pans out – with Afoa back, the front rows are pretty well matched, the second row probably edged by Leinster on an experience card and the back rows very, very close with the best 8’s and blind sides in the Rabo – a tight one to call and probably the area that will ultimately win the match.
    In the backs, Ulster have one of their best assests in their very creative 9/10/12 axis which is odd, given that the individuals in the mix for 10 would hardly terrify most HEC teams but with Pienaar and Wallace either side, all you need is someone with an eye for a break and decent hands. That said, Leinster have the best 10 in the Northern Hemisphere and all you need then is a 9 who can pass and a 12 who can tackle, which Leinster do have. Will be interesting to see how the battle of master vs. (one of) the apprentice goes at 13 – only a fool ever bets against O’Driscoll but Cave is an exciting and incisive runner when on form.
    On paper, Leinsters back three is arguably imbalanced with two fullbacks shoe-horned in to the side but then if Nacewa is the form wing/fullback in Europe this season then Kearney is second so I’d probably toss that piece of paper in the scrap heap. Ulsters back-three is better balanced with Boshmaster Trimble offset by the nippy Gilroy and “Handbags” Terblanche now seems an inspired signing by Big Brother. Should be a cracking match – the head says Leinster but it will be a much closer contest than most neutrals expect (just don’t let Ulster hear you say that)

  3. Congrats Leinster and Ulster……………… anyone know where i can watch highlights of the Leinster game? Cheers

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