The normally impeccable Brock James was successful only three times from seven penalty attempts and missed with all three of his drop-goal attempts, including one on full-time which would have sealed the win for his team. Leinster’s Jonny Sexton, on the other hand, had recently been off-form with his kicking, but made a timely return to kick five penalties from six attempts to add to his two conversions of Jamie Heaslip’s tries and give his team the win by 29 points to 28. This was a cruel blow for James, who for some years now has been the most successful goal kicker in European club rugby, and for his team, who had done enough to deserve the win.
The game started brightly for the visitors and they applied early pressure in Leinster’s territory. James missed an easy opportunity to put Clermont in the lead after Leinster were caught off-side, but the visitors continued to dominate. In the ninth minute, Leinster lost their own throw and, from phase play, James kicked long. A difficult bounce resulted in Jamie Heaslip’s knock-on and Clermont had the scrum feed near Leinster’s 22 metre line. Rob Kearney positioned himself strangely wide, almost alongside Shane Horgan, and left a huge gap in behind the Leinster midfield defence. James spotted it and chip-kicked beautifully for Canale to regather, then on to Malzieu for the try. James converted and soon after added a penalty from wide out on the right. It was 10-0 after only 15 minutes and Clermont were making a mockery of their atrocious away record in the Heineken Cup; indeed Leinster had enjoyed very little early possession and virtually no territory.
Rob Kearney - who would have had my man-of-the-match award ahead of Jamie Heaslip – soon put this right with a beautifully judged kick over the heads of both Malzieu and Floch and now Leinster were applying some pressure at last. Clermont’s throw was “not straight” and Leinster had the scrum-feed. Heaslip and McLaughlin took play forward and Sexton kicked his first penalty to steady the nerves. Leinster now had ‘the bit between their teeth’ and from the restart, Reddan kicked high for Kearney to chase and make the tackle. The chasing Leinster forwards drove low and hard over the ball for the turnover – a perfect example of ‘old-fashioned’ rucking – and, when the ball was spread wide, O’Driscoll drew two defenders and off-loaded, out of the back of his hand, for Heaslip to score, carrying the ball in two hands to outwit and outpower the defence. After a wobbly and lucky conversion, it was now 10 all, and the visitors must have had doubts.
More was to follow and Floch cleared into touch from near his own line, only to be recalled, since the ball had been touched outside of the quarter by a Clermont player. The lineout was on the Clermont five-metre line with Leinster’s throw and Jamie Heaslip had his second try from a rehearsed move. The throw was deep and McLaughlin peeled around the back with his tight forwards in close formation and the ball was recycled immediately to be cleared to Heaslip. He hit the pass at pace and with enough width to be running at Clermont backs. They had no chance and he scored under the posts. Soon after, Sexton kicked a long penalty and the half-time score was 20-10. Clermont had enjoyed a 58% to 42% advantage in possession and had led by ten points after only 15 minutes. They would need to use the break wisely, in order to refocus their efforts and their mind-set.
It seemed that they did just this, because, when an early penalty took them to the 22 line, their powerful forwards immediately took play ahead, with Domingo and Ledesma twice combining to breach the defence. The phase ball was spread wide and Malzieu was able to get outside of Horgan to score in the corner. James was still unsuccessful, but Clermont had their self-belief back and their 3,000 travelling supporters were in full voice once again.
The tackles now had even more sting and the tackle contests had become real ‘dog fights’ with both packs realizing that even one turnover ball could spell disaster. A successful penalty brought Clermont to 20-18 and the game was in the balance. Sexton matched with a penalty of his own, but the Clermont pack began to turn the screws and their scrum was causing problems for the home team, who had substituted van der Linde for Healy at the break. Only Brock James’ poor form with his boot was holding Clermont back and the referee felt compelled to warn Leo Cullen for his team’s frequent infringements. James at last converted for a scoreline of 23-21 and then set about pinning the home team on their own line with his trademark long kicking game. This strategy delivered immediate dividends when Shane Horgan’s less than urgent clearing kick was charged down for Malzieu to score his third try. James’ conversion took Clermont to a five point lead, but with 18 minutes still to play.
Leinster, to their great credit, immediately lifted their effort and the pace of their game. They attacked with pace and power, both wide and narrow, and when the ball eventually was spun again wide, this time to the right, Rob Kearney straightened on to a short pass from O’Driscoll and sliced through beautifully. Amazingly, the defence held him only centimeters short and, when the TMO ruled that Reddan had not scored at the back of the ruck, the referee took play back to an earlier off-side infringement. Sexton converted with an excellent kick for 26-28 and still Leinster maintained their intent and with pace. Another rehearsed backline attack, this time excellently executed from a scrum, gave the looping Darcy an overlap on the right. Floch was the sole defender and he chose to deliberately knock down the pass. He received the yellow card and Leinster the penalty, which would have given them the lead. Sexton hit this one badly and Clermont held on, but were now reduced to fourteen men!
Leinster continued to attack, showing extreme fitness and passion. They were not champions without reason and were determined to show just why. Yet another attack ended with Kearney looping around Horgan and then O’Driscoll was on hand to immediately ‘pick and go’. The pace was bound to tell on Clermont’s reduced defence and it did. A penalty for off-side in mid-field gave Sexton another opportunity and he was not about to miss this one. It was 29-28 with still seven minutes of play remaining.
Clermont knew what was to be done; after all, they had done it many times before. Their forwards put their powerful shoulders ‘to the wheel’ and, directing play to both right and left, but always tight, they closed on their target of the drop-goal zone. Brock James looked anything but comfortable, positioned himself poorly and missed clearly. Clermont, however, were not done yet and set out to repeat the dose from their now dominant scrum. This time James positioned himself well, but the pass from Morgan Parra was high and gave the charging defence the vital instant to close the space. James’ kick was again wide and the game was over. 29 points for Leinster. 28 points for Clermont-Auvergne.
During the week prior to the match, I had been chatting to Rocky Elsom about the up-coming quarter finals, remembering, of course, that he had been an important member of last season’s victorious Leinster team. “The match between Leinster and Clermont-Auvergne”, I said, “is worthy of the final. If Leinster are to win, Sexton must regain his kicking form. I’m confident that Rob Kearney will be back to his best. Champion players play well in the matches that count.” And so it was!
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