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!