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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leinster’s Devin Toner finds himself unceremoniously carried by Clermont’s Davit Zirakashvili during the Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon yesterday.
Clermont’s Camille Lopez scores the match-clinching drop goal against Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon yesterday.
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