Leinster show fighting spirit to edge home
Leinster 29 Clermont 28
ONE of the great European nights. Leinster claimed their place in the last-four of the Heineken Cup with a pulsating victory over Clermont Auvergne at a captivated RDS last night in a match that will be talked about for years to come.
But how close they came to defeat as Clermont out-half Brock James fluffed two drop-goals for glory, adding to a succession of missed kicks off the tee which failed to take advantage of a three-try burst from winger Julien Malzieu.
Clermont's status as the 'nearly men' of the Top 14 (having coughed up the last three finals) hints at a mental fragility on the big occasion and that will be further confirmed by last night's remarkable events.
After a whirlwind opening quarter when Vern Cotter's men looked as though they were about to run away with it as the champions flapped and flailed. The home side's supreme response -- helped considerably by the uncharacteristic inaccuracy of James -- preyed upon these insecurities and sent out a message to Europe that Leinster are not ready to give up their title just yet.
When they were needed most, Leinster's big names fronted up with Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Brian O'Driscoll making stunning contributions which echoed back to Six Nations frustrations, notably Ireland's 33-10 hammering in Paris when France fielded a clutch of Clermont players.
Heaslip was simply immense while Kearney, the subject of some over-the-top criticism during the Six Nations, confirmed his consistent class. Eoin Reddan is in a rich vein of form at scrum-half and had another busy, effective game which mirrored the assured play of his half-back partner Sexton.
Up front, captain Leo Cullen marshalled his trips superbly with Shane Jennings and Kevin McLaughlin providing able support to Heaslip.
Leinster needed these performances because Clermont came to play as evidenced by the stunning play of their wingers Aurelien Rougerie and Malzieu.
We said Kurt McQuilkin's highly rated and proven defensive system was going to come under the severest of pressure and so it proved almost from the second Sexton got matters under way. The French launched a bewildering series of attacks in a hectic opening five minutes with the home team scrambling furiously as Clermont hit them with kicks, long passes and direct charges all underscored by an aggression that was a couple of levels up from what Leinster had experienced a week earlier in Limerick.
Sexton went into the match with his place-kicking stats under scrutiny but it was the normally unflappable James who struggled in the first-half, making a hash of his first effort after five minutes.
Leinster were still in fire-fighting mode and after 10 minutes had yet to darken the door of the Clermont 22. A great turnover won by Cullen seemed to have eased the pressure until a knock-on by Heaslip gave Clermont position.
From the scrum, James spread panic in the defence with a lovely dink through, won back by Gonzalo Canale and worked through Rougerie to Malzieu who cruised over in the left corner.
Leinster claimed there was crossing in the build-up but referee David Pearson was having none of it and James was back in the groove to make it 7-0 after 12 minutes.
Clermont seemed to break the Leinster line at will and were utterly dominant in the physicality stakes. There was no let-up: the visitors were getting considerable joy from plugging Isa Nacewa's left wing where Rougerie carried a pronounced height advantage and this policy earned another penalty chance for James who slotted brilliantly for 10-0 on 16 minutes.
It needed something special to ignite Leinster and Kearney provided it with a raking left-foot clearance with took the home side deep into opposition territory for the first time. A great charge by McLaughlin and quick ball saw Sexton held up but from the resultant penalty the out-half made it 10-3. Enter O'Driscoll.
After D'Arcy seemed to take the wrong option after cutting inside, O'Driscoll launched himself onto the ruck ball and set off on a weaving run, just when you thought he had delayed the pass to Heaslip outside him, he slipped it out of the back of his hand which sucked in Rougerie off the Leinster No 8 who barged through Julien Bonnaire's tackle for the try.
With Sexton knocking over the conversion for 10-10 after 24 minutes, it was game on, with Leinster's leaders stepping up after a shaky star.
However, the Blues were earning the ire of Pearson and James was handed two more penalty opportunities but missed both.
It fell to Kearney once again to provide a boost and another booming kick set up a Leinster lineout which Heaslip won brilliantly to unleash McLaughlin on another burst for the line. Given the way he was playing since the knock-on, all Heaslip was missing at this stage was a superhero's cape and when the ball came back, the Kildare colossus barged his way over under the posts. Sexton popped over the conversion and added a penalty for 20-10 after 37 minutes and the entire complexion of this match had changed.
With James missing two out of five placed kicks by this stage, as well as a drop-goal, the kicking duties passed to Morgan Parra but he could do no better and Leinster went in at half-time with the psychological momentum.
However, this is a quality Clermont outfit and from good lineout ball off the back, a series of long passes sent Malzieu scooting past Shane Horgan for his second try. However, James' kicking woes continued and Leinster still had a five-point advantage.
However, Clermont stuck with James for the next penalty and were rewarded when he made it three from seven to leave the score 20-18 after 49 minutes. Healy, who replaced CJ van der Linde at half-time, produced a good charge that set up Sexton for another pop at goal and he kept his 100pc record for 23-18 with 25 minutes left.
Clermont put the squeeze on at scrum-time and won the penalty but James missed his fifth kick before making if four from nine for 23-21 on 60 minutes. They reclaimed the lead two minutes later when Horgan failed to trap the ball and then saw his delayed clearance kick blocked down by Marius Joubert, allowing Malzieu to follow up for his third try.
James calmly slotted the conversion for 28-23 to the visitors.
Leinster needed a response and Heaslip, McLaughlin and Kearney held up their hands again only for Kearney to be held up on the line with Reddan trying a cheeky touchdown when the ball came back only to be denied by the TMO. Compensation came when Pearson took them back for a penalty and Sexton made it six from six for 26-28.
Full-back Anthony Floch was then sin-binned after deliberately knocking on a scoring pass from Horgan to D'Arcy but Sexton missed his first kick of the night. Back came Leinster with Kearney and D'Arcy starring in more concerted phase play and 14-man Clermont buckled to allow Sexton make it seven from eight for Leinster to reclaim the lead with a one-point advantage with seven minutes left.
James then missed a drop-goal with three minutes to go but magnificent work by the visitors gave him one last attempt with the last act of the match only for it to trail wide.
An unbelievable end to an incredible match and Leinster march on knowing they benefited from a large slice of fortune and with work to do both on their penalty count and defence of multi-phase attacks.
But, for now, they can bask in the glory of a momentous victory on one of the greatest nights in the 15-year history of this wonderful competition.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney 9 (G Dempsey 77); S Horgan 5, B O'Driscoll 8, G D'Arcy 7, I Nacewa 6; J Sexton 7, E Reddan 8; S Wright 7, J Fogarty 7 (B Jackman 70), CJ van der Linde 5 (Healy 40, 7); L Cullen 7 (capt), N Hines 6; K McLaughlin 8, S Jennings 8, J Heaslip 9.
CLERMONT-AUVERGNE -- A Floch; A Rougerie (capt), M Joubert, G Canale, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, M Ledesma, D Zirakashvili; J Cudmore, T Privat (J Pierre 52); J Bonnaire, A Lapandry (A audebert 52), E Vermeulen.
Yellow card: Floch 68
REF -- D Pearson (England)