Le­in­ster will find it hard to for­get one that got away

Cullen frus­trated but says there is a lot more to come from this team

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Gerry Thorn­ley in Lyon

A bel­ter of an oc­ca­sion, and a crack­ing game to match, in which Le­in­ster con­trib­uted hand­somely by the dar­ing way they twice threat­ened to turn yes­ter­day’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal on its head from deficits of 15-0 and 21-12, be­fore ul­ti­mately los­ing 27-22. Close, very close, but no cigar.

For all the un­doubted progress made this sea­son, no­tably in Europe and es­pe­cially when com­pared to last sea­son’s cam­paign, the nag­ging sus­pi­cion re­mains that chances like this don’t come along too of­ten. While wish­ing Cler­mont well when tak­ing on Sara­cens in the fi­nal in Mur­ray­field, for Le­in­ster it will be hard to for­get that this was, in some re­spects, one that got away.

This was a sec­ond semi-fi­nal de­feat since their third Euro­pean Cup tri­umph in 2012, and was dif­fer­ent in so many re­spects than the ex­tra-time de­feat to Toulon in Mar­seilles two sea­sons ago. Le­in­ster will re­gret the three lost li­ne­outs, wasted pos­ses­sion and por­ous de­fence that saw Cler­mont race into their early lead, and yet they still al­most sal­vaged an un­likely come­back once they be­gan to gen­er­ate some mo­men­tum and width from their run­ning and of­fload­ing.

Joey Car­bery was again an aux­il­iary play­maker as well as a source of counter-at­tack­ing, while their cen­tre part­ner­ship for years to come, Rob­bie Hen­shaw and Garry Rin­grose, kept prob­ing and pen­e­trat­ing, with the lat­ter scor­ing the in­di­vid­ual try of the sea­son. They had Cler­mont on the ropes, but the home side’s restarts and left boot of Camille Lopez saw out the game.

Con­so­la­tion

Of some con­so­la­tion will be the knowl­edge that in con­trast to Mun­ster the day be­fore in their fairly com­pre­hen­sive de­feat to Sara­cens, this sec­ond semi-fi­nal did not sug­gest there is such an im­pen­e­tra­ble glass ceil­ing to pre­vent Le­in­ster be­ing con­tenders in Europe again.

“We feel very frus­trated be­cause we are that close and a lot of it is in our own con­trol,” said Cullen. “Every­one is gut­ted in the dress­ing room. We gave a lot, we pre­pared in­cred­i­bly well, we worked s o hard through the sea­son, the play­ers are frus­trated be­cause there are cer­tain things we could man­age bet­ter, but, as Rhys men­tioned, there are some learn­ings for a lot of play­ers. We just need to get back at it.

“We’ve a game next Fri­day; hope­fully we learn our lessons, we can im­prove and get bet­ter so if we’re in this sit­u­a­tion again, in France or wher­ever, we can man­age the sce­nario bet­ter. But there is a lot more to come from this team.”

The sec­ond of Cler­mont’s tries, by the ever-dan­ger­ous David Stret­tle, came while Isa Nacewa was sin-binned for tug­ging the English winger off the ball, and the Le­in­ster cap­tain could scarcely con­ceal his bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment.

“Yea, it’s tough. You know we talk about leav­ing ev­ery­thing out there, but it’s just the finest of mar­gins at the end of the day. So many great things across the early rounds of the com­pe­ti­tion, so many great per­for­mances, it prob­a­bly hurts more los­ing in a semi, one step short. It’s a bit­ter pill to take.”

“We said out on the field that we have to learn from this ex­pe­ri­ence. There are a lot of young guys across the team who will have take great learn­ings out of today and will look to get bet­ter. We have a game in five days. As a squad we have to take great learn­ings out of today and just pre­pare for the com­ing weeks, as there are still more tro­phies for us to chase.”

Right call

Re­gard­ing the piv­otal 57th minute over­ruled “try” by Dan Leavy, which would have put Le­in­ster in front for the first time, Cullen ad­mit­ted it was prob­a­bly the right call by Nigel Owens and his TMO Jonathan Ma­son of Wales.

“He [Leavy] prob­a­bly tries to stick Rougerie, but holds on too long. It’s one of those 50/50 calls. Un­for­tu­nately it didn’t go our way but across the game there is tons of those calls. So it was a big turn­ing point, 10 points, but even af­ter that the play­ers fought back well, cre­ated some more good op­por­tu­ni­ties, get­ting very, very close.”

Le­in­ster now face their last two reg­u­lar sea­son games against Glas­gow next Fri­day and away to Ul­ster on Satur­day week, prior to what is now an un­wanted rest week­end and then their home semi-fi­nal in the Pro12.

On the first round of vot­ing for the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, long queues were form­ing out­side polling booths by mid-morn­ing, but Lyon was more about one of those typ­i­cally sun-drenched car­ni­vals that in­vari­ably ac­com­pany ma­jor Euro­pean games in­volv­ing Cler­mont.

As ever, the Yel­low Army be­gan de­scend­ing on the Mat­mut Sta­dium de Ger­land long be­fore the game be­gan, by car, foot, tram and crammed metro lines. Four of their sup­port­ers wore cutout faces of Marine Le Pen, draw­ing a few mod­est cheers here and there, al­though most were in­dif­fer­ent. The front page of La Mon

tagne, the re­gional pa­per for Cler­mont-Fer­rand, per­haps summed it up best with its front page head­ing, above a pic­ture of thou­sands of their fans on the march: Ils vo­tent tous ASM. (They all vote for ASM.) Their post­match cel­e­bra­tions were as if they’d won the tro­phy, which, of course, they’ve al­ways found a way to lose hereto­fore.

Un­der­dogs

They’ll be un­der­dogs against Sara­cens, and it would have been fas­ci­nat­ing to see how Le­in­ster’s more var­ied and risk-tak­ing game might have fared against Europe’s reign­ing cham­pi­ons com­pared to the more re­stricted tac­tics em­ployed by Mun­ster.

Of some con­so­la­tion for Mun­ster, who will also be favoured to reach the Pro12 fi­nal in the Aviva Sta­dium given they’ve vir­tu­ally se­cured a home semi-fi­nal, was that Rassie Eras­mus con­firmed that he would be stay­ing with the prov­ince af­ter re­ject­ing over­tures from his na­tive South Africa.

Talking of how far Mun­ster had come in 10 months, Eras­mus said: “If you go back and see how far Sara­cens came in eight, nine, 10 months when they were start­ing out, I think we’re pretty much re­ally close to where we want to be. We’ll be bet­ter in a year’s time, and two years’ time and three years’ time. ”

Asked if he would be with them for those next few years, Eras­mus smiled and said: “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Re­gard­ing the piv­otal 57th minute over­ruled ‘try’ by Dan Leavy, which would have put Le­in­ster in front for the first time, Cullen ad­mit­ted it was prob­a­bly the right call by Nigel Owens

Oh, what might have been. Le­in­ster left them­selves some­thing of a moun­tain to climb at a vi­brant, throb­bing Sta­dium de Ger­land, but hav­ing trailed 15-0, came within a whisker of tak­ing the lead near­ing the hour mark be­fore ul­ti­mately Camille Lopez stead­ied a wob­bling Cler­mont to steer them into the fi­nal.

For much of the first-half hour Le­in­ster, miss­ing Sean O’Brien and with Josh van der Flier on the bench, were bossed in the col­li­sions and the break- down as Cler­mont gen­er­ated light­en­ing quick ball while turn­ing over or stalling Le­in­ster, whose cause was fur­ther hin­dered by a mal­func­tion­ing li­ne­out.

Ini­tially, Mor­gan Parra was the cre­ator in chief while David Stret­tle tor­mented Le­in­ster’s left flank. But grad­u­ally Le­in­ster be­gan to get Rhys Rud­dock and co rum­bling, and use the pass­ing skills of Johnny Sex­ton and Gary Rringrose ap­ply their own width to telling ef­fect, with Rob­bie Hen­shaw and Garry Rin­grose prob­ing dan­ger­ously. Sex­ton, unerring, brought it back to 15-12.

Even when a Dan Leavy touch­down was over­ruled af­ter he’d been de­tected to have held Aure­lien Rougerie at the base of a ruck in the be­gin­ning of the move, they again came back from 21-12 down thanks to a mem­o­rable try by Rin­grose, be­fore Lopez seized and sealed a crack­ing game.

Con­stant din

Well over half an hour be­fore kick-off, the Yel­low Army had pretty much filled the ground, as the bands played and the home fans kept up a con­stant din with their chants. “Ici. Ici. C’est Mont-fer­rand!” And why does the sun al­ways seem to shine glo­ri­ously on them?

Their team duly roared into a fourth minute try. It orig­i­nated from an over­throw by Richardt Strauss, and Rin­grose chip­ping the ball away. Cler­mont went wide right and then up the mid­dle, and play­ing with a penalty ad­van­tage, Parra used it to bril­liant ef­fect with a skip pass to Stret­tle, who chipped ahead for Pe­celi Yato to win the touch­down.

Parra even added the touch­line con­ver­sion, and soon af­ter a penalty from al­most the same point when Isa Nacewa had been pe­nalised and binned for tug­ging Stret­tle off the ball, af­ter Parra and Lopez had again worked the ball to the right chan­nel from a li­ne­out.

Nacewa’s ab­sence only en­cour­aged Cler­mont to explore Le­in­ster’s left wing again. Once more Parra’s skip pass to Stret­tle out­flanked the de­fence, the English winger beat­ing Dan Leavy on the out­side and Car­bery on the in­side. Soon the home crowd launched into a proud ren­di­tion of Les Mar­seil­laise.

Benjamin Keyser mus­cu­larly won a turnover af­ter a dummy and charge by Strauss. Keyser was very much the chief in that duel, and Cler­mont were the kings of Lyon. Le­in­ster, con­ced­ing penal­ties ei­ther side of this, looked rat­tled. A big hit by Hen­shaw on Rougerie at last won a col­li­sion and turnover, but soon Hadyen Triggs trucked it up and Fritz Lee couldn’t be shifted off the ball for an­other Cler­mont penalty.

From an en­su­ing turnover off Cler­mont’s li­ne­out drive, Luke McGrath launched a counter. Rin­grose showed some good foot­work on half­way, but Car­bery couldn’t get his off­load in the tackle away to Nacewa. Oth­er­wise, it would have been a try.

When Parra sniped and dipped into the tackle, Rhys Rud­dock was ridicu­lously pe- nalised for a high hit by Nigel Owens, mak­ing the penalty count 7-2. But af­ter Parra milked it, he missed it.

Near­ing half-time, at last Le­in­ster put to­gether some good phases of re­cy­cling, pass­ing and of­fload­ing. Leavy and Rin­grose made in­roads, and Hen­shaw made a good pass off the deck, be­fore Rud­dock again trucked it up and Cler­mont were pe­nalised for not rolling away. With the last kick of the half, Sex­ton opened their ac­count. They trooped off with a lit­tle more ur­gency and belief.

Fit­ness lev­els

The way Le­in­ster ran back the kick-off at the start of the sec­ond half, with Jack Co­nan mak­ing yards on the right touch­line, sug­gested they were in­tent on back­ing their fit­ness lev­els. A clever li­ne­out vari­a­tion at the front launched Co­nan up the line, and Le­in­ster went through quick phases to earn an­other penalty for killing the ball un­der the posts which might have mer­ited yel­low. Sex­ton made it 15-6. An­other bout of Le­in­ster at­tack­ing, with Rud­dock mak­ing a big gal­lop, ended with Sex­ton mak­ing it 15-9.

Sud­denly Cock­les and Mus­cles was echo­ing around the ground.

Cler­mont coun­tered from a kick, Stret­tle re­leas­ing Yato, but the cov­er­ing Luke McGrath, in some­thing of a phys­i­cal miss-match, did enough to tackle the flanker’s foot in touch. In­stead, Car­bery coun­tered, with Sex­ton tak­ing a great line and Rud­dock twice gal­lop­ing over the gain line again. Sex­ton made it 15-12.

Now “C’mon ye Boys in Blue” re­ally could be heard.

For a mo­ment, it got even bet­ter. McFad­den broke clear from Sex­ton’s in­side pass, pass­ing back to Sex­ton, and he made yards be­fore re­leas­ing Hen­shaw up the touch­line. Alas, af­ter Leavy reached out for the line, Owens and the TMO went back and con­cluded Leavy had held Rougerie at the ruck to cre­ate space for McFad­den. In­stead of it be­ing 17-15 to Le­in­ster with the con­ver­sion to come, Parra made it 18-12.

It was a huge mo­men­tum shift. Cler­mont were re­vived, again charg­ing into col­li­sions. The sta­dium rocked. Lopez landed a su­perb drop goal. The Yel­low Army bounced up and down in the warm sun­shine.

Le­in­ster brought on their im­pact men, and al­though Sean Cronin knocked on Sex­ton’s pass, they kept com­ing. Car- bery took a high kick and big hit, and stepped in as sec­ond play­maker as Le­in­ster ran from deep.

De­li­cious dummy

Tak­ing Sex­ton’s pass in­side half­way, Rin­grose danced back against the grain, step­ping off both feet to break free, sold a de­li­cious dummy to Sped­ding and then ig­nored the sup­port­ing Gib­son-Park to go on and score a stun­ning try. Nick Aben­danon should have been pe­nalised for a late land on Rin­grose af­ter he had touched down.

Sex­ton’s con­ver­sion made it a two-point game, but Rin­grose was soon iso­lated, and with Lee over the ball, Josh van der Flier was pinged for go­ing off his feet al­low­ing Lopez made it 24-19 be­fore he added an­other drop goal. Sex­ton’s 79th minute penalty gave Le­in­ster one last shot, but Damien Pe­naud re­claimed an­other hang­ing Lopez restart, and that was that.

PHOTOGRAPH: DAN SHERI­DAN/INPHO

Le­in­ster’s Devin Toner finds him­self un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously car­ried by Cler­mont’s Davit Zi­rakashvili dur­ing the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal in Lyon yes­ter­day.

PHOTOGRAPH: BILLY STICKLAND/INPHO

Cler­mont’s Camille Lopez scores the match-clinch­ing drop goal against Le­in­ster in the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal in Lyon yes­ter­day.

PHOTOGRAPH: BILLY STICKLAND/

Le­in­ster’s Garry Rin­grose on his way to scor­ing a su­perb solo try against Cler­mont in the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal at Stade de Ger­land in Lyon. INPHO

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