Friday 23 March 2018

Leinster 'hurting' for revenge - McFadden

Despite being out of position on the left wing, Fergus McFadden ran with pace and purpose against Clermont.
Despite being out of position on the left wing, Fergus McFadden ran with pace and purpose against Clermont.

Hugh Farrelly

WHEN Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt bumped into each other in the mixed zone after Sunday's seismic Heineken Cup showdown at the Stade Marcel Michelin, a bit of banter was inevitable.

The two Kiwi coaches have a bond dating back years to their time coaching in New Zealand, and their successful working relationship was brought to fruition when steering Clermont to their first French title last season.

Schmidt's subsequent switch to Leinster means Cotter now finds his old mucker plotting against his next step of European domination.

Although he preferred to focus on the merits of his side's 20-13 victory when speaking to the media on Sunday, the Clermont coach knows -- from similar experiences against Munster -- how crucial Leinster's bonus point away from home could prove to be.

When Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle on Sunday, thoughts immediately turned to next weekend's showdown and when Cotter caught sight of Schmidt in the mixed zone, he asked if there was any chance of a few points at Lansdowne Road on Saturday. "I'll give you one, if you give me four," replied the smiling Schmidt.


While soulless Saracens are out of the running after Brendan Venter and his coterie of South Africans came up short at home to Racing Metro, Pool 2 is still wide open and Saturday's Lansdowne Road rematch is shaping up to be a cracker.

A home victory -- even if Clermont manage a losing bonus point -- would put Leinster firmly in the driving seat heading into the final couple of matches in January. However, perhaps the most encouraging aspect from a Leinster, and Irish, rugby point of view is that Schmidt and his players were genuinely gutted to have lost on Sunday, in spite of the odds being massively stacked against them.

"It was a very quiet changing room," said Fergus McFadden. "People are hurting. The game was there for the taking at half-time -- they took their chances and we didn't take ours. It's not the worst-case scenario, at least we came out of the game with a point."

McFadden was one of the youngsters to front up in the absence of a clutch of headline acts. Out of position on the left wing, he ran with pace and purpose while throwing himself into his defensive duties with aggressive zeal -- a superb, try-saving hit on giant Clermont captain Aurelien Rougerie being the stand-out.

Inside him, another tyro, Eoin O'Malley caused Clermont endless grief. With no Brian O'Driscoll, there was a sense the Clermont players dismissed the threat posed by his replacement, allowing O'Malley to make repeated inroads.

The physical intensity and fearlessness of Schmidt's younger brigade like O'Malley, McFadden and Sean O'Brien, as well as Dominic Ryan and Cian Healy off the bench, bodes well heading into the later stages of the pool campaign.

Leinster were also tactically excellent, working Clermont out to such an extent that, as McFadden alluded to, had they finished off his first-half surge down the left or managed to turn their on-the-line pressure into a try in the second half, this could have been won of the great Irish European victories.

The selections of Heinke van der Merwe, Nathan Hines and Isaac Boss were based on bulk and designed to counter Clermont's power up front, a plan well-conceived and executed.

Boss came in for attention throughout, taking an awful battering from a selection of Clermont heavyweights, but the scrum-half never gave an inch.

The policy of not kicking in the direction of Clermont's dangerous back three prevented the home side building sustained momentum, while the analysis work done on Sione Lauaki, Clermont's primary ball-carrier and source of front-foot possession, also paid off handsomely.

The big All Black was repeatedly stopped at source by some tigerish Leinster tackling. Shane Jennings was especially impressive in this regard. The leadership and hard edge Jennings and Leo Cullen have brought back from Leicester was emphasised yet again.

It was a game made for Hines, while Ireland coaches Les Kiss and Alan Gaffney will have been pleased with how Jonathan Sexton and Gordon D'Arcy coped in attack and defence.

Put it all together and, injury worries aside, there is much for Leinster to be positive about. Clermont have the ability to fashion an away victory in Dublin but are a less daunting prospect away from the Stade Marcel Michelin.

That said, judging from Cotter's post-match assertion that his players identified a "lack of respect" from Leinster, there is sufficient grievance in the Clermont camp to ensure they will not roll over on Saturday.

There was plenty of niggle on Sunday and more is expected in four days' time, but Leinster proved that they have what it takes to see off the French champions in front of a rocking Lansdowne.

"Joe said afterwards that the difference between home and away fixtures in the Heineken Cup is massive," said McFadden. "The noise out there was unbelievable, it was actually deafening when they had a bit of go-forward ball, so hopefully next week when we're in the Aviva the shoe will be on the other foot. It will make a massive difference when the crowd gets behind us."

One point for four in the rematch? Sounds about right.

Irish Independent

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