Sport Vincent Hogan

Thursday 14 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Cheika's warriors prove too hungry for Michelin stars

Quite a night in the old horse arena where those one-time 'Ladyboys' of Europe brandished enough stubble to sand furniture.

Leinster fought the wonderful fight in a bear-pit atmosphere, not even a hat-trick of tries from French wing, Julien Malzieu, sufficient to derail their defence of the realm. Seldom has the Heineken Cup decanted whiter heat. Seldom has a winning team dug deeper to survive.

The night ended to shrieks of terror, Brock James slipping into the pocket for Clermont Auvergne and waiting for delivery from a glacial-slow ruck. Eventually, the ball arrived and his drop-goal attempt set off sure and straight, before lurching drunkenly off-target.

Leinster, wheezing like escapees from a mine shaft, fell proudly over the line.

There's the quaint air of a village fair to how these nights begin in Ballsbridge. The breeze blows the smell of the chip vans up into the old Anglesea Stand, under which players limber and stretch like rosetted farm animals. The place-kickers work their gentle rituals, next to ball-boys spinning giddy passes for giggling appreciation. Music floats over everyone.


You could be lulled into believing that what's coming will bear no more tumult than a rotary club barbecue. "Your Leinster team is going to play with pride tonight" declares the man on the tannoy, as if he's anchoring a round of 'Come Dancing'.

Then the sky slowly darkens and the sounds become more urgent. By kick-off, the carnivore in everyone is awakened. Huddles become de rigeur. High fives too.

In last night's opening seconds, Ledesma and Zirakashvili piled forward like raging buffalo. Rob Kearney made a car-crash hit on his opposite number, Floch. There was an abundance of extra-curricular skirmishing every time a ruck began to untangle.

And all this energy seemed to spook Brock James who shanked his first kick at goal. Our thinking was delusional, though.

In the 12th minute, James' sublime dink set up Malzieu for the opening try and the fly-half converted from an unpromising angle. Then, in the 16th minute, he floated a perfect penalty from the toes of The Grandstand and, already, Leinster were baling wildly.

Yet, they are nothing these days if not obstinate.

A simple Jonny Sexton penalty was soon followed by Brian O'Driscoll's scissoring break for Jamie Heaslip's first try and Sexton, standing 12 from 29 for kicks in the tournament, defied the maths to convert from row Z.

The flames of crisis had been doused in seven impassive minutes.

Clermont are the great illusionists of French rugby. Wealthy and plumed, yet about as resilient on the big days as a blow-up lilo in the Pacific. They flounder habitually and no-one feels much pity. Which isn't entirely surprising.

Because, to some in France, cheering for Clermont is as rational as cheering for the national Treasury.

This is because of a perceived over-investment in etrangers -- otherwise known as foreigners -- to try and win their first ever French Championship (they've been runners-up 10 times). And that's not strictly fair. Clermont, after all, supplied more than a third of this year's French Grand Slam team.

Yet, in the way Abramovich's millions have made Chelsea about as loveable as Enron, Clermont's Michelin backing gets opponents all high and mighty.

The French can be quite stuffy on these matters and you get the sense that European success for a team built around an Argentinian hooker, Georgian tight-head, Canadian lock, Australian fly-half and Italian centre - indeed one guided by a New Zealand coach - might not quite set Gallic heart strings aflutter.

Then again, surely no-one understands cruel caricature quite like Leinster.

Until last year, they were accused of throwing more shapes than Peter Stringfellow after a succession of blighted dawns in the fight for Europe. Then they won and, instantly, everyone saw them differently. Suddenly, critics deduced that the Flying Scotsman itself would be hard pressed to breach a hole in their defiance.

Overnight, they became different people. Pugnacious. Resourceful. Unrelenting. Remember, they've won their last three battles with Munster on a 71-21 aggregate score which, 12 months ago, would have been inconceivable.

It's like Val Doonican re-incarnated as Alice Cooper.

The live bat would have been considered haute cuisine here. In the 34th minute, Heaslip was over again, this time under the posts. And when, three minutes later, Sexton nailed a kick from 10 metres inside his own half, the kid who -- reputedly -- cannot kick, stood at four from four.

Leinster went to their tea with a 10-point cushion on double scores, the old arena plugged into loud music again.


Yet Malzieu was over again, in the left corner, within four minutes of the resumption and, soon, James added a fine penalty. And thoughts of a carnival were now evaporating into a deep, dark Dublin sky.

Clermont play with brutal physicality, but they are capable of small beauties. On 62 minutes, Malzieu was in yet again after a Shane Horgan clearance was charged down and James, lying face down after a late hit by Heaslip, dusted himself down to land the conversion.

The occasion now had its fingers to our throats.

Sexton landed his sixth clean kick to leave it 26-28 with thirteen minutes remaining and then Floch was binned for a deliberate knock-on as Leinster came barreling forward. Sadly, this time, Sexton's kick was wayward.

Leinster's pressure now, though, was relentless. Sexton re-trained his eye to kick his seventh from eight with six minutes remaining, yet no-one was signing foreclosure forms.

Now it was Clermont's turn, rolling phase after phase of white terror towards the north stand. James missed a drop-goal attempt, novenas splashing off 15,000 tongues.

And the, with the last kick of the game, spilled another to finally, mercifully, remove the boot from Leinster's rib-cage. Quite a night.

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