O'Brien lifts brave Leinster to bonus
AFTER a November International Series that only spluttered into life in damp patches, the Heineken Cup roared back to action this weekend and it is no exaggeration to describe Leinster's performance in securing a bonus point in Clermont yesterday as one of the bravest in Ireland's European history.
It was a fantastic result for Joe Schmidt and his men when you consider that they travelled to the Stade Marcel Michelin without three Lions -- Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney -- and lost future Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip to injury just after half-time, while Clermont had 22 internationals in their 23-man squad.
Clermont were ferociously physical in contact and used their greater size to bully the visitors out of the contest. Leinster bodies were strewn about the pitch during various breaks in play, but they kept getting to their feet to throw themselves back into the fray.
After receiving a first-half blow that left him unable to keep his feet, Sean O'Brien put in a phenomenal display, completely outplaying Julien Bonnaire. If O'Brien was the stand-out, 22-year-old Eoin O'Malley showed no nerves stepping into O'Driscoll's boots and repeatedly danced his way through the Clermont defence.
No Leinster player, from Isa Nacewa at the back to a front-row that refused to buckle against a far heavier unit, let the side down and, although disappointed that they couldn't record the win they always believed was in their grasp, it sets up the return in Lansdowne Road next weekend.
It was a remarkable contest which had a remarkable opening. A fluffed kick-off from Sexton provided Clermont with a scrum on halfway and then a free-kick when Leinster engaged early.
Off went Sione Lauaki on the charge, but before Clermont were able to generate proper momentum, they turned over possession to the visitors, who then produced two minutes of glorious off-loading rugby, choreographed by Isaac Boss, with Nathan Hines, Mike Ross and O'Malley all to the fore.
When the ball was moved right, Sexton executed a trademark wrap-around with D'Arcy and fed Shane Jennings and when his pass was batted down by Julien Malzieu, it broke for Shane Horgan, who barged his way over in the corner. Sexton and Heaslip both needed treatment, but the out-half nailed the conversion for a stunning 7-0 lead.
The response was guaranteed and explosive, Brock James scorching through the middle past the despairing clutches of Nacewa to set up position in the scoring zone. Slick releasing allowed Malzieu to continue his try-scoring habit against Leinster, with Parra adding the convert for 7-7.
The crowd bayed for more, but Leinster were in no mood to comply and came steaming back, with O'Brien making deep inroads into the home defence, and Sexton pushed them back into the lead after Clermont failed to roll away.
With Heaslip in obvious, limping discomfort, O'Brien was the next to get special attention. There was the horrible sight of the Tullow man staggering around when trying to keep his feet after another punishing carry.
Whether it was wise for Heaslip and O'Brien to stay on the pitch, there was no doubting the bravery involved, mirrored by their team-mates, who refused to cave in the face of fearsome Clermont pressure.
It limited the home side to a Parra penalty for a half-time score of 10-10, with one phenomenal hit by Fergus McFadden on Aurelien Rougerie typifying the 'you shall not cross' Leinster attitude. For all his fortitude, a clearly gutted Heaslip was forced to the sideline after barely two minutes of the second half with Dominic Ryan coming on at blind-side flank and O'Brien switching to No 8.
Malzieu was denied another score when his breakaway was called back for a knock-on, which provoked the predictable storm of fury from the stands when they had every reason to be content with the officiating, given the two-to-one penalty count in Clermont's favour.
They were given reason to cheer not long after when, after a spell of concerted pressure, the ball was shifted out to Anthony Floch on the right wing, who had the space to cut back in before D'Arcy had time to properly adjust for the tackle.
Again Leinster responded, Sexton steering them into the Clermont '22' and kicking three points when the penalty was awarded for coming in from the side. Parra replied for Clermont a few minutes later, but at 20-13, Leinster were still in striking distance and were inches away from a try after a superb turnover from O'Brien was followed up by excellent jinking and surging by O'Malley and D'Arcy.
Hines and Cian Healy, on for Heinke van der Merwe, came close with pick and drives, but the Clermont hits were fierce and they were able to relieve the pressure when Shane Jennings was dubiously penalised driving for the line.
Vern Cotter decided it was time to release the bench heavyweights in a bid to kill off the dogged visitors and the Clermont coach replaced his entire front five. It allowed the home side to crank up the pressure again, only for Parra to fluff his lines with a relatively straightforward penalty.
Clermont will look at the video and question why they kicked the ball away at the end when they could have worked the phases and gone in search of a bonus-denying penalty, but it allowed justice to be done as it would have been cruel if Leinster left with no tangible reward for this mighty effort.
CLERMONT -- A Floch; N Nalaga, A Rougerie (Capt), G Canale, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (L Faure 70), T Paulo (M Ledesma 68), M Scelzo (D Zirakashvili 40); L Jacquet (J Pierre 50), T Privat (E Vermuelen 68); J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, S Lauaki.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan , E O'Malley, G D'Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, I Boss (E Reddan 61); H van der Merwe (C Healy 55), R Strauss, M Ross (C Newland 70); L Cullen (Capt), N Hines; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (D Ryan 42).
REF -- W Barnes (England).