Friday 23 June 2017

Johnny Sexton: We'd have fancied a go at Saracens

Clermont 27 Leinster 22

Johnny Sexton can’t hide his disappointment after Leinster’s defeat in France against Clermont . Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton can’t hide his disappointment after Leinster’s defeat in France against Clermont . Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A season of progress, yes, but Leinster were left wanting so much more in Lyon.

Twenty-four hours after Rassie Erasmus spoke of a massive gulf in class between his Munster side and European champions Saracens, Johnny Sexton lamented the fact that he and his Leinster team won't get a crack off them.

Leinster's Isa Nacewa avoids a tackle during the European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final match. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Isa Nacewa avoids a tackle during the European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final match. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Both Irish provinces got a reality check this weekend after a season of improvement, but the three-time champions found out they are far closer to the top of the tree than their neighbours after running Clermont Auvergne so, so close at Stade Gerland.

They returned to Dublin last night lamenting a slow start in which they were blown away by the relentless yellow machine, but recovered to take full control of the game.

They made their move in the 55th minute, but Nigel Owens and his assistant Ian Davies intervened to quash their ambitions.

Correctly, they ruled that Dan Leavy had held on to Aurelien Rougerie's leg for too long at a ruck deep in Leinster territory. Innocuous, perhaps, but when the gap the big centre left was exploited by a brilliant Sexton pass inside to Fergus McFadden and led to the openside touching down at the other end it proved costly.

Leinster's Ross Molony is tackled by Clermont's Damien Chouly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Ross Molony is tackled by Clermont's Damien Chouly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Instead of Sexton converting and putting his side in front for the first time, Morgan Parra extended his team's lead. On such moments do games turn.

There was still time for a moment of outrageous magic from Garry Ringrose to drag his side back, but the boot of Camille Lopez saw Clermont home. They deserved it, just about.

"It was a hard game. It was well-contested. I don't think there was much between the sides," Sexton reflected.

"We would have loved to have seen how close we could have gotten to Saracens and we don't get the chance now which is really gutting.

Leinster's Jonathan Sexton is tackled by Clermont's Morgan Parra, left, and Sébastien Vahaamahina. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jonathan Sexton is tackled by Clermont's Morgan Parra, left, and Sébastien Vahaamahina. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"We'll learn from it and come back stronger I think.

Magic

"We spoke about it afterwards, we've got to use this experience and get better for it and try and win the PRO12 now. The first 15, it cost us really, didn't it? To go 15-0 down, it was really disappointing.

"We've got to look at the reasons why. Obviously, we didn't get the rub of the green on a couple of occasions when we needed to put a bit of pressure on them."

Those early stages were poor from Leinster players young and old.

Leinster's Rhys Ruddock is tackled by Aurélien Rougerie, left, and Sébastien Vahaamahina o Clermont. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Rhys Ruddock is tackled by Aurélien Rougerie, left, and Sébastien Vahaamahina o Clermont. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ringrose launched an aimless kick that was punished by Peceli Yato's try, the lineout went to pieces and a pumped-up Isa Nacewa picked up a soft yellow card. "Dumb" was his own description of the incident.

David Strettle added a second try and Leinster had conceded 15 points in as many minutes.

Slowly, they worked their way back into the game. Dan Leavy emptied Remi Lamerat, they started to hold on to the ball and they began to resource the ruck and keep the ball. Suddenly, Clermont began to look human and Sexton scored a penalty before half-time.

Having failed to get going in the first half, Leinster utterly dominated after the break and three more Sexton penalties put his side back in the frame.

Then came the Leavy moment. Technically correct, perhaps, but Sexton wasn't convinced.

"It's a massive point in the game, at 15-12 I think. We go ahead for the first time in the game having had all the ball at the start of the second half," he said.

"In fairness, Camile Lopez had two great drop-goals but even then I don't think they looked like scoring in that second half, they didn't really have the ball.

"It was a big turning point. I couldn't really see the screen to be honest, it was pretty poor.

"Dan cleaned him out of the ruck, but maybe held on to him. I thought he let go in time, thought maybe Rougerie wouldn't have made the tackle anyway. He didn't look like he wanted to make the tackle.

"Those things just sometimes aren't taken into account; we were a little bit frustrated with a few of the calls.

"But at the end of the day we weren't good enough, we were beaten by the better team and we've got to say that."

Parra nudged his side in front and a Lopez drop-goal made it a two-score game, but then Ringrose produced the moment of the match with a stunning try from inside his own half that might have had Warren Gatland shifting uncomfortably.

Sexton's conversion reduced the gap to two points, but again the French side re-asserted their control. Lopez kicked a penalty and added a drop-goal.

Sexton made it achievable with a penalty, but having worked so hard to get back within range and with 60 minutes on the clock, they failed to catch the restart as Damian Penaud sailed through the air untouched and secured the win.

"We still could have won the game, even when we got the penalty to get within a try; we win the kick-off there and you wouldn't have bet against us going the length - at least I believe that," Sexton said.

"But then we lost the kick-off, so yeah; small margins."

It was no consolation that they had played a role in a modern classic, that they had gone so close with such a young team in front of a partisan home crowd.

Because this Leinster team believe that this is the air they should be breathing and they're determined that this is the company they will be keeping from now on.

"The young guys have come in and made a big impact; Stuart has made a huge impact," Sexton concluded.

"We thought we could have done it this year, we weren't happy that we got to the semi-final.

"It's a big improvement on last year, we'd big aspirations to go and compete in the final against Saracens who would have been favourites but we would have fancied our chances; Edinburgh would have turned blue, we'd have turned out... It's gutting."

Clermont - S Spedding; D Strettle, A Rougerie (D Penaud 57), R Lamerat (P Fernandez 66), N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra (L Radosavlijevic 70); R Chaume (E Falgoux 65), B Kayser (J Ulugia 54), D Zirakashvili; A Iturria, S Vahaamahina (P Jedrasiak 70); D Chouly (capt), P Yato (A Lapandry 54), F Lee.

Leinster - J Carbery; F McFadden (Z Kirchner 73), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 65) ; J McGrath (P Dooley 61), R Strauss (S Cronin 50), T Furlong (M Bent 72); D Toner (R Molony 61), H Triggs; R Ruddock, D Leavy (J van der Flier 67), J Conan.

Ref - N Owens (Wales)

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