independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

War of the worlds

IT IS seven minutes to six on April 30. Has it really only been 24 hours? A swirl of Saint Emilion is making an unholy mess of my whirling brain and churning my stomach as speedily as the propellers on this Aer Lingus flight EI0507 from Bordeaux to Dublin.

The Irish Independent lies across the aisle.

"Caught your breath yet?" reads the first line of a report attached to an outstanding display of colour photographs and, millimetres away on the same newsprint, the confused snapshot of a bespectacled, befuddled creature.

The reader in seat 9D glances up from the byline picture to spy a less than subtle interloping reader, one whose glasses offer the only clue that he and the byline picture may, indeed, be one and the same person.

Betrayed by a dishevelled head in which is housed an undomesticated overnight eyrie suitable for any of the mystic eagles from 'Lord Of The Rings' and a dry mouth that, when attempting to form words, emits only the mere gurgling sound of a slowly expiring gasun from 'Love/Hate', thus forces the writer and reader to communicate cocooned within that peculiarly Irish idiom.

The nod. The wink.

For we were there.

When television can peek into the most intimate moments of the most private lives, when a mudslide in Iran can be beamed to your iPhone on the 27B to Donnycarney or the 246 to Glanmire, it had, indeed, been a privilege to be reminded of the glorious frivolity of sporting theatre in its most primeval form.

Not even had we travelled the 250km south to Lourdes could we have witnessed anything closely resembling the miraculous feats of human endeavour that spreadeagled themselves across the Stade Chaban-Delmas turf 24 hours earlier.

Was it truly that epic?

Of course it was, on a series of levels. In the measure of rivalry that pre-existed before this latest wrangle for superiority. In the cross-cultural, global nature of the meeting; "international rugby with different jerseys," according to a combatant who has featured on each side, Nathan Hines.

The stakes in a semi-final – long, unbeaten records on both sides; French champions versus European champions – heightened the intensity.

The participants, O'Driscoll, Rougerie, D'Arcy, Heaslip, Sexton, Bonnaire and more, read like a list of 21st century European giants.

This was akin to pitching up at the Centre Georges Pompidou and seeing Dali, Monet and Rembrandt all curated at the same time, or visiting the Old Vic to see Pacino, Pryce and Penn performing a David Mamet rewrite of Shakespeare. Yet, Bordeaux was not art imitating life or life imitating art. It was life itself. Revealed through the prism of sport.

But still living, breathing and, more, utterly unscripted and as impossibly indescribable as any work of high art, its characters unbending to any predetermined move.

Caught our breath yet? Even six months later, the memories of even the closing seconds leave us wheezing in celebrated contemplation.

It is seven minutes to six on April 29. Has it really only been 80 minutes?

Flailing

There are 111 seconds left and Wesley Fofana is being ushered from a pile of flailing bodies strewn on the Leinster goal-line, the most important working limb of which, Gordon D'Arcy's protruding arm, presents itself as the fleshy difference between glory and despair.

How did we get here? Starting a compelling narrative at its dramatic ending, with so much lurching indecisively in the balance?

But all that we left behind until this moment has contributed to it. All has led to this. Even though we know who shot Liberty Valance, we still watch the movie. Although we remember the fate of the poor Joads in the 'Grapes of Wrath' on the final turn of a page, we still commit to every one of the previous 457.

And so we gulp air, inhale cigarette smoke and absorb the various noxious confections of sweat, aftershave and perfume, waiting for Wayne Barnes to receive the divine intervention of the all powerful TMO.

Fofana, that spring's newest French sensation, seemingly at once engulfed in celebration and mourning. Time is stilled as we await verification.

Geoff Warren says 'no.'

"Some you win, some you lose," Schmidt would mutter laconically later.

"It lacked two millimetres," lamented the home captain, Aurelien Rougerie.

Les Jaunards, the delirious yellow-clad hordes, hoot derisively, while a thicket of blue-jerseyed Leinster fans deign to whoop and holler, but are instead momentarily seized by a stunned sense of silence contrition to an unknown higher power.

High above in the clouds – but, we must gladly admit – way below any ivory towers, it had been impossible to remain seated in the preceding minutes, before Fofana's abortive attempt to touch down.

There we were – well, one or two of us at least – frantically twittering and facebooking and instagramming and scribbling illegibly and wondering what time did Sean Cronin come on and panicking about the WiFi when, suddenly, everything started shuddering.

Until that point, you understand, the stadium had been merely shaking. Now it was shuddering. Juddering. And any 'uddering' word one can think of.

Clermont were marching now to a stirring beat. They were all out of pomp and circumstance. Their rendition of 'Thunder and Blazes' was done.

"L'ASM" they pounded.

This was the 'Ride of the Valkyries'. Forget Robert Duvall and his pining for the Etihad – this is the sporting occasion to which he should have accompanied the world's most famous imp.

Clermont remain poised on the line, a five-metre scrum indicating that menacing intent remains. Looks like we picked the wrong week to quit smoking, as the fella says.

Leinster's blue edifice holds – just. Jamie Cudmore attempts a breakthrough, but Jonny Sexton, re-emphasising his team's bravery once more, launched himself at the gargantuan Canadian.

To our left, Joe Schmidt, Greg Feek and Jono Gibbes have abandoned all pretence at emitting sound, reasonable instructions as the Clermont advance continues, trundling forwards like some impressive, human caterpillar.

"Keep throwing yourselves in front of the bus," they exhort in choral unison. Leinster bodies fling themselves into what proves to be the game's 158th and final ruck with utter disregard for their safety.

"You know a lot of credit comes down to our forwards and what they did in the last 15 minute," Isa Nacewa would later affirm.

"Getting stuck in our '22' like that, and then the forwards defending phase upon phase with huge heart.

"They knew it was coming and they stood up and were counted."

Nacewa, after all, had a decent vantage point.

"I was actually just standing out on the sideline!" he recalls. "I hadn't actually made a tackle for about 15 minutes! I was surprised they didn't go wide at the time, but that's what their forwards do.

"They tried to drive the ball down and it came to that one last tackle and that's the way it fell."

The Tullow Tank is credited with securing the 10th turnover of this pulsating afternoon and, just as suddenly as the shuddering and the juddering commenced, all was now silent.

Save for the Leinster faithful, who exploded with uncontained rapture as Sexton launched the game's final kick high into the steamy sky to put the seal on a masterful triumph.

Across from the blue swathes, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we have witnessed something special on this day.

It is only then, as thoughts crease themselves into vague attempts at linear reconstruction, is it possible to remind ourselves just how we had got to this precise moment in time, 111 seconds from full-time.

Leinster had started like an express train and were immediately into their attacking groove, with Kearney and Nacewa linking superbly on the right wing to such an effect that when Julien Malzieu departed early with an injury, it might well have been caused by dizziness.

They were also dominant on the floor, winning four breakdown penalties with Richardt Strauss and O'Brien excelling on the ground skirmishes as Barnes whistled against the Clermont players to their obvious frustration.

The set-piece was the key determining factor in Leinster's inability to build upon their bright opening. However, it also allowed Clermont's relentless powerhouses to edge into a position of clear dominance by half-time.

In effect, they could have been 15-3 up at the break, Sitiveni Sivivatu gifting Leinster a three-pointer after impeding Isa Nacewa from Kearney's poor Garryowen, while they were also en route to a five-metre scrum penalty before Jamie Heaslip rescued Leinster.

As it was, a 12-6 interval lead scarcely reflected Clermont's clear edge at the set-piece and imperceptible appetite to unleash their wonderful off-loading game, with Sivivatu prominent throughout in open play.

Three lost line-outs, as well as the clear and present difficulties being experienced at scrum time undermined Leinster's bright opening.

The sides had exchanged early penalties, but Leinster offered more threat in attack, while Rougerie, stopped once with thunderous force by O'Driscoll in the attack, was just one of the Clermont backs unable to pierce the initial blue wall of defence.

Clermont, however, were able to cut Leinster apart at times, with Sivivatu showing both Heaslip and Isaac Boss a clean pair of heels with a blistering touchline sprint. However, they were undermined by sloppy breakdown work, as well as excellent Leinster technique.

Cullen could have been binned in the 23rd minute for a robust tussle with Lionel Faure; his side won a penalty at the ensuing scrum to compound the sense of grievance among the cacophonous Clermont crowd.

The home side edged ahead on 32 after their first significant success on the ground, but, even when Brock James sauntered though a trio of forwards, a breakdown penalty undid his side's momentum.

When Sivivatu's nudge on Nacewa gifted Leinster a 34th minute leveller, the away side would have been happy with their opening declaration of intent, until a sloppy six-minute period before the half-time cuppa undid all their hard work.

Healy was the central figure in Leinster's mini-implosion in the three minutes before the break, just as he would be crucial to his side's rehabilitation in the three minutes after it.

Firstly, Healy was pinged as Barnes began to slowly alter his perception of the breakdown exchanges, allowing James to steer his side's noses in front.

Then, a wild attempted offload forced D'Arcy to needlessly knock-on and, from the resultant scrum, Clermont got the advantage and James made it double scores at half-time – 12-6.

Leinster were immediately rehabilitated after the interval.

Sexton, we were jokingly told, had initiated an oratory exhortation similar to that which had rolled back the stone from potentially lifeless decay in the famous final a season earlier.

An inside ball from Strauss set man of the match Kearney off on another scintillating break; Healy's support ensured the move would end with seven points.

Kearney's drop goal in the 47th minute pushed Leinster to 16-12 and the tenor of the game suddenly shifted.

Now Clermont were chasing and Leinster were willing to defend when required, without ignoring the potential for attack.

"People focus on the defensive effort in Bordeaux, but that was only the last five or six minutes which was really on our line, the defensive effort," Schmidt reminds us.

"There was some really positive play and we got control of that second half for a long period.

"Johnny missed out on the kick with the TMO that was very, very tight. That would have given us a seven-point advantage at that stage.

"So if you look at that overall game, we played some really good stuff there. We scored the only try, and it was a pretty effectively done thing.

"So, it was defensive resilience that we showed, but we also played a bit against them."

Boy did they play. No team in Europe last season could live with them.

In the teeth of such defiance in Bordeaux, true greatness was defined.

Yet, as Nacewa conceded: "If it wasn't for Fofana, we would not have had a Heineken Cup."

In June, these two behemoths would be paired once more when the draw for this season's competition was made.

This time, Fofana and Clermont would have their revenge and we wondered where did all that time go.

Has it really been only seven months?

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