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!
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 score 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!
Last Friday we played Edinburgh in a Pro 12 game. The Leinster team was depleted due to players being away on Ireland duty but they still managed to put out a strong team. We welcomed back some players from the Ireland camp like Van Der Flier and Luke McGrath who needed some game-time. And there were players starting after long injury lay-offs such as Dave Kearney and Joey Carbery.
It was really a game of two halves. The first was a torrid affair with lots of stoppages and with Leinster having to defend for most of the game. Leinster managed to get a try early in the half, but then spent the rest of the half defending their line through a combination of spirited Edinburgh attack and defence and Leinster’s poor exit strategies. On countless occasions, Leinster were turned over through aggressive counter-rucking from Edinburgh and not committing enough players to the ruck. On top of this, whenever Leinster did manage to get their hands on the ball they either box-kicked too far, inviting Edinburgh straight back at us or not finding touch. Despite this, it must be said that their defence was very impressive and they showed great character to refuse to allow Edinburgh to cross the whitewash.
The Leinster team was decimated by injuries throughout the game, which required some creative shuffling of the team to manage! The game ended with our starting outhalf at fullback, our fullback at centre, scrumhalf on the wing and hooker at blindside! We even had to finish with 14 men as Carbery went off and there were no further replacements! Despite the difficulties in the amount of injuries, the team did really well to get the bonus point in the second half, which featured some beautiful tries and offloading. Whatever was said at halftime seemed to have a very positive effect! One silver lining of the injuries was that Dan Leavy came on and played a blinder, seeming to pop up everywhere and earning the man of the match award in the process.
Overall it was crucial that Leinster got points from this game to ensure they kept the pressure on the Ospreys and Munster at the top. Also we have a very difficult end to the season with games against the Ospreys, Glasgow, Connacht and Ulster. This means that we need any points we can in this 6 nations period to ensure we are still in contention for play-off spots come the end of the season.
I travelled over for the final group game for Leinster. It was a bitterly cold night in France but the match was exciting and was on a knife edge for most of the game to keep all of us in the crowd distracted. Leinster knew going in to the match that a win would guarantee a top 2 finish.
It started brilliantly with Leinster scoring a penalty and the Henshaw getting his first try for Leinster. It was an opportunistic score and we had suddenly found ourselves 10-0, appearing like we were cruising to an easy victory, especially considering Castres seemingly had nothing to play for.
However Castres were not going to give up that easily. Castres have only lost once this season at home and the rest of the game showed exactly why. They played with real passion and intensity that at times Leinster were powerless to stop. Leinster also lost the experience of Sexton and Nacewa early in the game, which only compounded their problems.
The game was a real rollercoaster for anyone present. In truth either team could have won. Castres looked on course to win it at the end with a series of mauls against 14 men. In fact it seemed only a matter of time before they did and snatched the game. However before that last period of sustained pressure, Leinster could well have got a bonus point win, with only the cruel bounce of the ball stopping Leinster’s Rob Kearney from running under the posts unopposed.
The result of all this was Leinster managing to hold Castres lunges for the line at bay and scraping a draw. It was enough to secure a home quarter final against Wasps. However it now means we will be away to either Clermont or Toulon in the semis! Despite all this I think it was important for Leinster to have a really tough game, lately we seem to have had a string of slightly easier matches which I feared had the potential to leave us exposed later on.
Last Friday Leinster faced Montpellier in a must-win game for qualification for the quarter-finals of the European Cup. What I had expected was an arm wrestle with a close game, especially after the away game which I went to earlier in the season. Instead what materialised was an engrossing first 20 minutes followed by a very one-sided last 60 minutes.
The end result was even more surprising given how well Montpellier started. In the opening 5/10 minutes, Montpellier looked the team much more likely to score. Then Leinster came back and scored two good tries, the second followed a beautiful piece of magic from Isa Nacewa. Then at around the 20th minute mark the game’s result was all but settled. Leinster looked dangerous and were going for their third try when Steyn hit Sexton late and high with a swinging arm. The tackle would have been on the edge of a red card a few weeks ago however now with the new crack-down on this area, the red was almost guaranteed.
One of the main talking points in the game apart from the red card was Leinster’s brilliant attacking play. Even before Montpellier had completely thrown in the towel, Leinster looked like they were well on their way to a bonus point. Leinster had brilliant running lines and brilliant variations in their attack. They also mixed it up with kicks in behind, chips and skip passes. It was extremely promising to watch and made it a very entertaining evening in the RDS.
Special mentions must go to Jack Conan who grabbed a hat-trick. Considering how difficult it is to get a place in the backrow at the moment in Leinster, this display would do his chances over the next few weeks no harm. Adam Byrne also played brilliantly scoring one of the best tries of the evening. Nacewa also played brilliantly, scoring one and setting up Conan’s first try of the night. It was also great to see Sexton back on the pitch. In the last few weeks we’ve been down to what was our 4th choice outhalf at the beginning of the season. Byrne and Carbery before him have both played very well in his absence, but it’s evident to see how well Sexton manages the game when he is on the field.
If we can follow up this result with a win next week in Castres we will have a home quarter-final which will be crucial for our chances to try and progress. But even at this point, it is looking a lot better than this stage last year!
It was nice to get back to the RDS to see another home live game after the November Internationals. Because Leinster were bulk suppliers to the Ireland team, there were plenty of notable absentees from the Leinster line-up. However despite this, it was exciting to see some of Leinster’s younger players getting a chance.
This was really a game of two halves, or more accurately 45 minutes and 35 minutes! In the first 45 minutes Leinster scored four tries and secured the bonus point through some beautiful running rugby. However after that they didn’t score any points for the remainder of the match. They let the Dragons back into the game but held out to deny them any points from their trip.
Despite the last thirty minutes, Leinster played really encouraging, heads-up rugby. They constantly looked to keep the tempo of their attack up and were always looking to offload. Some of the tries were really nice on the eye and it was a nice mix of forward power linking with the back’s electric pace and passing.
There were some really encouraging performances from a number of players. I thought the centre Rory O’Loughlin had a brilliant game, with his break for Carbery’s 4th try a real highlight. Another player that impresses me every time he plays this season is Adam Byrne, he is fast and strong and seems to have a real eye for the tryline. It was also a great game for Jack Conan in only his second game back from injury.
Despite the bonus point win on Saturday the next two weeks against Northampton Saints will be the making or breaking of our season. Lose these games and our stint in Europe will be over. Therefore it was interesting to see Carbery taken off before the 50th minute. This probably means that Sexton is injured next week and Carbery may start. It’s amazing what this guy has achieved so far this season!
I travelled over to Montpellier for our first European away game last weekend. In the end the result didn’t go our way and our performance wasn’t up to scratch. But considering how the game looked in the 60th minute, to get a losing bonus point, whilst denying them a winning bonus point was a fantastic achievement.
The game was very poor for 70 minutes from a Leinster perspective. They made countless errors, especially knocking on the ball in contact. They lacked accuracy in attack and a lot of the time when the play went beyond four or five phases, Leinster appeared to run out of ideas and a cohesive plan.
However the sheer size of the Montpellier team must be mentioned. Throughout most of the game they bullied Leinster and looked to physically pound Leinster into submission. For most of the game they succeeded, but Leinster kept hanging on and eventually their fitness levels showed, as the Montpellier giants began to tire.
Despite all this, the game showed how mighty Leinster’s character is. To refuse to roll over and to fight right up until the very end showed great spirit and meant I actually left the ground with hope and pride. Anyone that has watched European campaigns in the last decade will know how important each point is come the end of the group stages. I also believe that any team that has any serious notions of winning the tournament shouldn’t leave an away game empty handed.
I thought 4 players put in excellent performances in this game. I thought Ringrose was terrific. He kickstarted the move that resulted in us eventually going over in the corner. He also appeared to be our most dangerous attacking threat throughout most of the game. Carbery did extremely well when he was called on at the beginning of the second half. He controlled the game well and looked settled throughout. This is amazing considering it is still his first season and only his second European game. It looks like the outhalf role is in good hands if Johnny gets injured. Nacewa as always had a brilliant game, he nailed all his kicks and provided calm for the team when the going got tough. As well as getting the try at the end, he also had the presence of mind to run as close to the posts as possible to make sure he got the kick that got us the point. Finally I thought Dan Leavy had a really strong impact when he came on and provided some important breaks and go-forward ball.
Even though I am rather positive throughout this post about the point, it is important to remember this was a loss! The performance apart from the dying minutes was nowhere near the standard required in this tournament. A massive improvement is needed if we want to progress from this pool. Also in the last three games, defending mauls has looked a real issue. In the games against Munster and Castres we conceded tries defending mauls. Against Montpellier we seemed to constantly be giving away penalties whilst trying to defend mauls and lineouts. In the end is was encouraging to see the attitude and spirit Leinster showed in this game and it’s always to see your team achieve something even on an off day but they will need to up their game before the visit of Connacht next weekend.