Blues dig in to fight one more battle
CASTRES 22 LEINSTER 29
A HOME quarter-final looks just out of Leinster's reach but the three-time European champions showed the type of resilience they'll need on the road in April with this win in Castres.
Not many teams win at the Stade Pierre-Antoine, never mind score three tries, and for a long time it looked like Matt O'Connor's side's scalp would be added to the long list of the vanquished, but somehow they did enough to come back from 14-0 down and win.
The victory completed perfect pool stages for the Irish in France, with all four provinces winning on their trips to play Top 14 teams, while it also confirmed the third clean sweep of this season's pool stages.
If this is to be the final Heineken Cup, the Irish seem determined to end on a high.
Leinster have yet to confirm their place in the last eight, however, and have five days to turn themselves around for the visit of the Ospreys to the RDS, a team who know how to poop a party in Dublin.
"We survived and we're alive again," forwards coach Jono Gibbes said. "We've got to go back to the RDS and correct a few things from today, but build on a bit of that unity and commitment because I thought those two things got us home in the end.
"It's impressive from the players. What they did for each other out there today and the manner in which they did it wasn't always the best way of doing it, but they hung tough.
"I think that's pleasing, we've just got to make sure we have a good look at what we're doing to feed other teams really. Fourteen points to these guys seemed like a big mountain, to be honest."
Castres could scarcely believe that they had lost after leading 14-0 after 25 minutes in a game in which they dominated at scrum and line-out time and made headway in contact.
They picked holes in Leinster's defence at will and were undone by last-gasp interventions on the ground on a number of occasions. Too often they left the visitors' '22' with nothing.
In contrast, the Irish side were ruthless, particularly in a 10-minute spell after half-time when they turned a five-point deficit into a seven-point lead through the boot of Jimmy Gopperth and Rob Kearney's drop-goal.
Gopperth justified O'Connor's selection with a haul of 21 points that included a pair of vital first-half tries, but on the flipside he was one of those responsible for defensive lapses as Leinster's defenders struggled to deal with the big-ball carriers deployed by the French champions for whom Richie Gray, Ibrahim Diarra and Remi Lamerat did huge damage.
It was that trio who carved the visitors open with alarming ease after 10 minutes, the big back-row staying alive in Jordi Murphy's tackle before off-loading to centre Lamerat who beat fully six defenders before Dave Kearney finally halted his march.
Still, he pumped his legs and managed to get the ball back to Seremaia Bai whose cut-out pass put Gray over in the corner.
Scrum-half Cedric Garcia converted and -- although Sean Cronin was close to scoring a try -- Leinster found themselves assembling under the posts once again as Bai split the defence, Lamerat bounced Brian O'Driscoll and moved the ball out wide to Remy Grosso who drew the last defender and sent Brice Dulin over. Again Garcia converted and Leinster were in need of a response.
Their route back into the game began with Rob Kearney kicking a penalty for a ruck infringement to touch and, although their first maul attempt was halted illegally, they went again and Cronin was held up over the line.
Nigel Owens awarded a scrum and the creaking set-piece held for Eoin Reddan to find Gopperth who stepped inside Remi Tales' poor defence to score.
The France out-half injured himself while trying to make up for his error as Gopperth converted, but, despite the loss of the captain, Garcia extended his side's lead with a penalty minutes after missing an easier attempt.
That would have given the hosts a 10-point cushion at the break, but they failed to control their own ball as the clock ticked into injury-time and Leinster pounced with a well-constructed series of phases that saw Luke Fitzgerald make a big break and Gopperth score his second try.
He missed the conversion, but the five points gave the game a different complexion at half-time.
Despite that, Leinster found themselves under pressure immediately after the break and some brilliant last-gasp work on the ground by Rob Kearney and O'Driscoll got their side out of jail after some poor initial defending.
Then came the series of smash-and-grab raids that began with Reddan's raking kick and an excellent Leinster chase that saw Lamerat held up in possession.
Garcia's frustration led to him stamping on a prone player and Owens upgraded the scrum to a penalty for Gopperth to knock over.
Rob Kearney sent an opportunistic drop-goal over to give his side the lead, before more Castres indiscipline allowed Gopperth extend that lead and he stretched it to seven points when Cian Healy -- a late inclusion on the bench after his ankle injury -- made an immediate impact with a big carry and Christophe Samson went off his feet.
Despite the cushion, there was no time to relax and, as both teams visibly tired, Cronin put his side under pressure by coming around the side of a ruck and playing the ball before it came out.
Owens sent him to the sin-bin and Daniel Kirkpatrick kicked to touch but despite their initial maul being hauled down, they couldn't make inroads and Benjamin Desroche knocked on in Gordon D'Arcy's tackle.
Shane Jennings was next to step up and make a big play after Max Evans made a break as his massive hit at a ruck forced a penalty.
"That was another big swing too but, hats off to the guys, they dug in. It was physical. You could see we were out on our feet at the end and were able to survive," Gibbes said of the defensive effort.
They could finally breathe easy when Castres' chasing caught up on them and Ian Madigan spotted an overlap right and fed Cian Healy. He cut inside, drew the last defender and sent Murphy over in the corner.
That secured the result and, even though Castres got over for a late third try through Lamerat, the pool remains in Leinster's hands.
CASTRES -- B Dulin; M Evans, S Bai (M Garvey 67), R Lamerat, R Grosso; R Tales (capt) (D Kirkpatrick 30), C Garcia (J Tomas 61); Y Forestier (M Lazar 61), MA Rallier (B Mach 52), K Wihongi (A Peikrishvili 51); C Samson, R Gray; M Babillot, I Diarra (Y Caballero 63), P Faasa (B Desroche 70)
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (I Madigan 76), L Fitzgerald (Z Kirchner 78); J Gopperth, E Reddan (I Boss 66); J McGrath (C Healy 61), S Cronin, M Ross (M Moore 61); D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen 66); K McLaughlin (S Jennings 52), J Murphy, J Heaslip.
Ref -- N Owens (WRU)