Dogged Leinster's coolness under pressure gets them out of jail
T here aren't many teams that jump off the page in terms of their attractiveness as prospective opponents for a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup, but there was much anxiety among Leinster fans ahead of Friday night's match against Clermont-Auvergne.
In the opinion of many around Europe, the sole reason the lavishly-resourced French have yet to win the tournament is their prioritisation of the Top 14 championship, the much-coveted and notoriously difficult-to-win Bouclier. This year, however, seems to have brought a change of emphasis and, as a result, Clermont presented a daunting prospect, even in the RDS, for Michael Cheika's team, who were seeking their 11th successive win in all competitions.
What transpired on Friday night will go down as one of the memorable Leinster victories of the professional era. In what was only the province's third home quarter-final since the competition's inception in 1995, and their first since 2005, the increased-capacity crowd in the RDS, as well as the viewers at home, were privileged to witness a battle of immense physicality and tension, and no little skill.
The much-vaunted Clermont forward-pack, led from the front by the familiar figure of Argentinian hooker Mario Ledesma, were eventually confronted by the Leinster eight who, having played a very poor second fiddle in the opening quarter, managed to scramble their way into the game before the visitors' lead became unassailable.
One of the major factors in Leinster's success in recent years has been the solidity of Kurt McQuilkin's defensive system. This was plain for all to see in Thomond Park last week, when Munster were held tryless by Leinster for the third time in 11 months, and it has been such a consistent feature that it is now taken for granted.
Friday reminded us all that, in sport, nothing can be taken for granted -- the concession of a hat-trick of tries to Julien Malzieu demolished what had up to this been a brick-wall defence and what had been the foundation for their recent successes was unceremoniously taken from under the champions.
After the concluding games of the Six Nations, question marks lingered over the place-kicking of Jonathan Sexton, to the extent of speculation that it could, ultimately, cost Leinster the game, particularly in the aftermath of some unexpected misses in Thomond Park, and also in the context of the unerring Brock James coming to town.
While Sexton's game management and marshalling of the back division had not faltered during his period of difficulty with the boot, I personally felt that Leinster wouldn't win this game without Sexton firing on all cylinders with the boot, in addition to producing his 'A' game in every other department. It's a credit to the man that, with the usually-impenetrable defence failing to show up, he missed just one from seven when it really mattered.
Remarkably, there was also a no-show from the place-kicking game of the Australian James at out-half for the French. One of the most consistent practitioners of the art in the northern hemisphere had what can only be described as a catastrophic outing, managing a mere five from nine from the placed balls, and zero from three attempts at drop-goals.
To rub salt in the Clermont wounds, the place-kicking hero of the French Grand Slam, scrum-half Morgan Parra, was reduced, apart from one unsuccessful effort just before half-time, to the role of a mere spectator, and a frustrated one at that, to the travails of his half-back partner.
I've mentioned Leinster's unbeaten run of ten games in advance of Friday's game; they were obviously in good form, but they hadn't encountered anything of the quality of Friday's opposition in that run of success. The importance of the return of Kevin McLaughlin at blindside, talisman Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan in the backs cannot be understated.
At this stage of the competition, with intensity levels equalling those of Test rugby, the experience of the latter duo in attack and defence is vital -- even though the Meathman had a night he'll prefer to forget, and hope that Michael Cheika will do likewise.
Particularly unlucky was Fergus McFadden, who had performed impressively, and as recently as Good Friday, in O'Driscoll's absence, but found himself completely out of the match-day 22, but the attributes brought to the table at this stage of the competition by Horgan and O'Driscoll are difficult to match.
McLaughlin, too, more than justified his selection and, as one who questioned his suitability for the particular task in hand, I salute what was his best performance in a Leinster jersey.
All in all, it was a battle of massive intensity -- one which would have been beyond the reach of most, if not all, Leinster sides of the past. When Cheika departs at season's end for Paris, one of the
primary legacies he will leave behind from his five years in charge will be the 'madra' which has become a hallmark of his team and is an essential trait in the modern game, particularly at Friday's level of competition.
There is now a calmly confident assuredness about the group -- you just can't help feeling that when a gilt-edged opportunity presents itself, it will be dealt with clinically.
Evidence of this is that by my, admittedly rough, calculations, Leinster spent no more than ten of the 80 minutes inside their opponents' 22-metre area, spread over three separate incursions; from these rare sightings of the lesser-spotted blues they nonetheless contrived to pillage 17 points, at an average of almost six points per visit. This is a remarkable statistic in Leinster's favour.
However, they will know they got out of jail on Friday, and that a semi-final visit to France in a few weeks will present an even bigger challenge. They can't afford the concession of another French hat-trick. Neither can they afford to lose the physical battle like they did to Clermont -- that will provide the bigger challenge in the intervening period.