Clermont 27 – Leinster 22

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I traveled over to see the Leinster and Clermont semi-final over the weekend in Lyon. Although I’m still devastated by the result, we were treated to a brilliant spectacle of positive and exciting rugby. Unlike the other semi-final the day before, where Munster and Saracens played a largely boring pick and go style of play, this game had a really edge of your seat style rugby, with both teams attacking from anywhere on the field.

In front of an overwhelming number of their hugely passionate fans, Clermont came out and started with a blistering pace that Leinster quite simply couldn’t deal with. Leinster did themselves no favours by losing three early lineouts and failing to handle the breakdown, which led to Nacewa being sin-binned. This coupled with Clermont’s width, pace and accuracy meant that within the opening 20 minutes Leinster were 15-0 down. In this opening quarter Strettle made one try and scored the other himself, with Fritz Lee and Parra also having huge parts to play. This opening spell by Clermont ultimately led to Leinster having too much of a mountain to climb.

The only saving grace from the first half was that Leinster managed somehow to not concede any further scores for the rest of the half after that blitz in the first fifteen minutes. Leinster even salvaged a penalty to at least send us in to the tunnel with something on the board. Although it must be said that we were fortunate that Parra missed a conversion and an easy penalty (by his high standards). At halftime I was concerned that Leinster would be making the trip back to Dublin having not shown a decent account of themselves.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right from the kickoff Leinster kept the ball in hand and began to build momentum and pressure. The whole team looked galvanized and began to find holes in what appeared to be a impenetrable defence in the first half. We managed to get three penalties back to back and got the scoreline back to 15-12. After this I really thought we’d done it when Dan Leavy went over. This would have been the first time Leinster would have taken the lead, but the TMO deemed that Leavy had held Rougerie in the buid-up to the move and the try was disallowed and Parra slotted the resulting penalty. This seemed to take the winds out of Leinster’s sails and then Lopez slotted a really nice drop goal to extend their lead.

Despite this, Leinster fought back and scored one of the best individual tries of the season through Garry Ringrose. He stepped two defenders before selling Spedding a dummy and racing to the line. It was a brilliant try and once again after the conversion gave Leinster a glimmer of hope. Another Lopez drop-goal extended the lead to 27-19 and moved it to a two-score game approaching the end. Despite this, Leinster fought back and Sexton slotted a sideline penalty to bring it within one score with only a few minutes remaining on the clock. No one at this stage doubted that Leinster might be able to pull off a miracle comeback! But from the resulting kick-off, Leinster didn’t organise themselves and Clermont won it in the air and from there played out the last two minutes to clinch a win in a breathtaking match.

I couldn’t help but feel devastated by the result and the manner of the loss as they came so close to winning the match. However I was also incredibly proud at how the players all showed such ambition and resolve to fight their way back in to the match. I also feel that this team looks like a team that can win a Heineken Cup again in a season or two, which I didn’t believe at the beginning of the season. I wish Clermont the best of luck in the final. They play some beautiful rugby and have exceptionally passionate but kind fans. It would also be a wonderful send off for one of the game’s greats and a Clermont god – Rougerie!

Leinster 32 v Wasps 17

Leinster v Wasps - European Rugby Champions Cup Quarter-Final

It was great to be back in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup once again. After only winning one group game last year and thus failing to progress, this year marked a return to the quarter-finals. I must admit I was extremely nervous in the build up to the game. This was due to the combination of Wasps leading the Aviva Premiership and their back to back wins over us in the group stages of the same competition last year!

From the kickoff it was apparent that both teams had come to play high risk and positive rugby. Both Leinster and Wasps regularly kept the ball in hand, even within their own 22s and tried to play the ball out. Leinster dominated much of the opening quarter, but had precious little to show for this dominance, and Wasps should have brought the game to a one point margin of 8-7 if Le Roux hadn’t knocked the ball on attempting a dive over the try line. With the last play of the half, Leinster managed to disrupt the Wasp’s lineout and through quick thinking by Leavy and then brilliant passing by O’Brien and Sexton, Henshaw raced under the posts to send Leinster in at half time with a lead that reflected the superiority shown in the first half.

But credit must be given to Wasps who fought back in to the game through a stunning individual try by Wade, where he threaded through a delicate grubber and outpaced the defence to touch down. And then they brought the game to back within 8 points when ex-Leinster player Gopperth showed great acceleration and strength to score a lovely individual try of his own. This brought the game back from a dead-rubber to a tight two scoreĀ game with another 20 plus minutes remaining.

Leinster however put the game to bed when McFadden scored a pick and go try after a brilliant break from Ringrose and a strong carry from Toner. From there the game was out of Wasp’s grasp and Leinster managed to play out the rest of the clock without conceding any further scores.

This was the strongest Leinster showing I’ve seen all season and really demonstrated Leinser’s instinct in attack and the strength and dynamism of their forwards. My one criticism was that early in the second half we had a few opportunities to score a try and put the game to bed, but we spilled the ball or gave away a cheap penalty, which nearly cost us when they got back to within two scores. Against Clermont in two weeks time, we will have to be much more clinical and take every opportunity if we have any hope of winning.

A special mention must be given to Leinster’s young players. I thought Ringrose had an excellent game and made some excellent breaks and tackles in defence. I also thought Henshaw was at his usual high standards and provided shuddering tackles and carries. Man of the match Carbery showed some brilliant touches in attack and set up 2 tries, despite being at fault for one of their tries. And finally I thought Leavy was excellent, tackling every that moved with ferocity but also showing subtle and sublime handling to link the forwards to the backs. With so many young players performing at such a high ability, it looks like Leinster’s future could be very bright!