TO SAY that Leinster managed to beat Clermont Auvergne thanks to their vast Heineken Cup experience would be an understatement. It would also serve to undermine what actually took place for those who were not privy to what transpired at the RDS on Friday night.
Without taking away from the Blues’ performance, a fact that must be alluded to at the outset is that a new powerhouse of European competition has now emerged.
The manner in which Clermont did the customary lap around the pitch in the aftermath of a bitter defeat was one of confidence and an assurance that does not usually accompany losing quarterfinalists. You felt they all knew, despite the loss, that in many facets of play they did a number on the European champions.
Understandably, the most dejected looking player was Brock James, a player with one of the best kicking records in the French Top 14. He swallowed a bitter pill of what the Heineken Cup is all about, but will no doubt benefit from this experience.
Leinster, through sheer hunger and desire and some outstanding individual performances, somehow came out on top despite coming out second best in the physical stakes on the night.
Leinster began badly in the first 20, something they knew they probably could not afford. Even some of the most composed operators looked nervy, and this was coupled with the continued indiscipline that would have cost them on many other days.
It’s a moot point, but had the French side been playing at home, with the ability to ease into their game, allied with the start they enjoyed, it could have been a long day for Leinster. Home advantage and the pressure of the day certainly told on James as he missed numerous opportunities to put reasonable daylight between the two sides early on.
As the half progressed, I felt that the failure to grasp such opportunities was beginning to sow seeds of doubt in the away team’s psyche. Leinster’s first real bit of intensity and territory resulted in a turnover that led to an excellent try by man of the match Jamie Heaslip.
Everyone watching knew Leinster had a battle on their hands. The game continued to ebb and flow, but I felt it was the home side, for the most part, that had to subdue the power that was prevalent throughout the French team, especially in the second half.
However, despite being physically outgunned, the champions always managed to up the gears when they needed to in attack and always looked dangerous with the ball in hand. The French struggled to cope with Leinster’s ability to link out wide and move through the phases. One sensed that Clermont’s physical approach was not having the desired mental effect on their opponents. At times they almost looked surprised at the ability of the Leinster outfit to repel each onslaught with their own blend of continuity. They may have been naive in assuming that the champions were going to eventually succumb in front of their home support.
In the end, the boot of Jonny Sexton was the difference but, yet again, those who witnessed such a memorable game know that would be simplifying things too much. I was delighted that he produced when he needed to most, in the most pressurised of environments.
Leinster will know that they will need to improve in many aspects before they head to the semi-final in Toulouse. In the back of their minds they know they will never face as physical a test as they did on Friday night. Dwelling on such things will only offer them cold comfort. They will know that they are going to have to improve their accuracy, discipline and defence, especially in the wider channels, regardless of the challenge they face come the semis.
When all is said and done, after coming through such a massive test still with much to improve on only serves to underline the fact that it is going to take a seriously good side to topple the champions in 2010. We look forward yet again to bigger and better days.