Sunday 19 November 2017

Blemishes illuminate a night to remember

Imperfections from both sides added to drama of Leinster's victory, writes Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The RDS has hosted a few top-class European days and nights in its short history as Leinster's home. The 41-11 thrashing of Wasps in the second round last season; the 30-13 win over Toulouse the previous year; even the first-round defeat by Bath in 2005, which threatened to kill their campaign at the first hurdle, brought a big-game atmosphere that was intoxicating. None of them was on the same planet as Friday night's contest with Clermont Auvergne.

As an event, it reminded you of how far rugby has come in this country, and how in Dublin the Friday Night Lights have illuminated a scene that previously was dark and unused. The difference between these European events and some Six Nations games is that virtually everyone is there because it means something to them, not because they're on a freebie. At the end of it though there was a yawning gap between the home team and their increasingly vocal supporters. The final whistle sparked wild celebrations from the bulk of the 20,000 who were shoehorned into the stadium, a venue whose upgrading can't come quickly enough.

And the players? Well, you could have been forgiven for thinking they had drawn and were facing a replay in the Auvergne next weekend.

Given they have to travel in three weeks, that's how it feels. All of France were tuned in to this game and believe Leinster will lose over there in the semi-finals, regardless of who comes out of today's tie between Toulouse and Stade Francais. After 20 minutes, during which time Clermont had softened up their hosts and restricted them to their own half -- and were winning the penalty count 4-0 -- you could see this was a plan that could work.

It would have had a happy ending too had Brock James not let them down. The Aussie is technically a sound footballer with a fundamental flaw somewhere between his ears. On any given week in the Top 14 he can strike the ball like a metronome, but his history in this competition is poor.

Twice against Munster last season he let opposition off the hook, first in Clermont when he couldn't nail the drop goal that would have deprived them of a bonus point, and then in Thomond Park when he had another handy shot to bury the Reds, who at that stage had one foot in the grave.

On Friday night, Leinster were extraordinarily lax in their commitment to discipline and James missed five off the tee while Morgan Parra missed another. And that's before you get to the three failed drop-goal attempts from the out-half. A grand total then of 26 points. If you had come to this game knowing it would be tight and fearing that Jonny Sexton's goal-kicking issues might prove critical, then in a roundabout way you were right: hard to argue with seven from eight shots on goal. In a one-point game, how critical is that?

So French rugby fans did their sums yesterday and concluded that Leinster cashed in their luck vouchers in one go, leaving them with no fallback for the semi-final. Everywhere you turned on Friday night you came across Leinster people wiping their brows and marvelling at how they had survived. And soon-to-be Leinster people -- well incoming coach Joe Schmidt anyway -- was in the same vein.

"Just trying to be objective, they will mostly breathe a very big sigh of relief because they overcame us -- no doubt -- 29-28 represents that on the scoreboard but at the same time, dare I say it, they also had a little bit of luck that Brock did miss a lot of kicks. Unfortunately, the match swings on so little and that was the way tonight."

The flip side surely was that Sexton stood tall at a time, figuratively speaking, when he was battling to maintain his balance? "Yeah. I thought Jonny got knocked around a little bit too," Schmidt added. "He dragged himself up off the dirt a few times which shows a bit of grit about the young fellow as well which is an important attribute, and at the same time as well to be under pressure and nail the ones that count. He missed a tough one from out on the sideline, but apart from that he nailed everything else."

By a distance Sexton's performance with the placed ball was the best thing in Leinster's game. Which crystallises things for the semi-final: if they can get him fit in three weeks rather than four then they are in business. If not, they will have a weekend off when the final is being played in Stade de France on May 22. Such is the importance now of a player who just over a year ago was running on to Croke Park to fill the gap left by Felipe Contepomi.

The other injury worries are Rob Kearney, who chose the ideal time to return to form, and Brian O'Driscoll who aggravated his knee injury courtesy of a late tackle from Gonzalo Canale. Kearney had the ankle scanned yesterday afternoon and the results will be revealed tomorrow, though it was reckoned ahead of that procedure that he hasn't done lasting damage.

So on one hand Leinster are battling to get half their backline fit, and on the other they have to fix those issues which currently have the French salivating: the scrum and the fringe defence. It was noticeable how downbeat Jamie Heaslip was after a game in which he had scored two tries and picked up the man of the match award. Why? Because Clermont had biffed them on the fringe.

"They worked us well and kept us on our toes and sucked us in," he said. "We got very tight and probably didn't help ourselves that we soaked a lot of tackles around the side of the ruck but they made our defence get very tight and they stretched us at times out wide as well."

When he says "soaked" he means a defensive tackle rather than an offensive one. Clermont came in twos and threes around the side and even though Leinster's defenders were in position, and appeared to be set, they consistently came off second best. It set the tone for the evening.

The scrum was another strand from the same theme. Cian Healy is now attracting a lot of attention for his scrummaging performance and it hasn't been helped by going from first choice for Ireland to second choice for Leinster. For sure he was under extraordinary pressure from Dato Zirakashvili but with Clermont playing big time for a scrum penalty in that endgame, Healy managed to get under his man -- and drive him inwards. It was a huge moment.

Afterwards Michael Cheika was critical of his team's discipline (they were 12-3 down on the penalty count at one point) but they did well to withstand that scrum series without conceding, and equally their avoidance of a penalty when Clermont set up a maul in midfield, with the express intention of forcing Leinster to drop it, was pretty good.

What maddened the coach was that they had prepared for aspects of the game which then, on the night, looked like they had crept up on them from behind. Like restarts.

"We said (beforehand): 'Let's say James is probably going to kick two or three penalties minimum, or maybe two or three drop-goals, so we're going to have to maybe kick off five or six times to them, put pressure on them. And we're going to be scoring hopefully as well so we're going to be receiving so a lot of the game of going to be restarts.' And we were terrible at them. I think we maybe cornered one of them and that was lucky. And then the discipline as well -- it kept coming and coming and we infringed too many times.

"So much of the game comes from the restarts and you could see from the kick-off that first play went on for two minutes. They were looking to play and we were looking to play so it opened up nicely. With the ball I actually thought we looked pretty good; we looked quite dangerous but the problem was we only had 35 per cent of it I'd say."

So with less of the ball and a struggling set-piece Leinster needed something fundamental to go wrong on the other side of the fence. And that something was Brock James. Well, that and a belief that as champions Leinster have a track record of having the last say in any argument. Afterwards, while they were surveying the physical damage and reflecting on how close they had come to going out, down the corridor Mario Ledesma addressed his team-mates.

"He said how proud he was of the team and he said he's played in a lot of big games," Schmidt said of the hooker. "He's an exceptional player but he said in 20 years time this is the sort of game he will remember fondly, the guys who were alongside him and really threw their bodies around as tired as they were. I don't think there is any other sport quite like rugby. It's why I love the game. It's why people love to play the game. The solidarity that players get from having stood together and throwing everything they can together, it does build a team."

The Leinster boys were probably too tired to make the same observation. But they would agree with every word. They will fix the things that were loose in the RDS and go to France for the semi-final an even tighter outfit.

Sunday Independent

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