Leinster's comeback ends in heartbreak as Clermont snatch victory in Lyon
Clermont 27 Leinster 22
Just like Munster, Leinster were served a reminder that for all of their progress this season they still have a way to go to get back to the top of the European tree.
They looked closer than their southern rivals at stages during this tumultuous, absorbing thriller in Lyon but ultimately a shocking start cost them dear and, having worked so hard to get into a position from which they could win the match - twice - they let it slip.
After 15 minutes, it looked like they’d be hammered. With 15 minutes of the second-half gone, they thought they’d established a lead but for Dan Leavy’s try to be ruled out by Nigel Owens having consulted with the Television Match Official Jon Mason.
Just when it looked like they’d lost it again, Garry Ringrose scored a try for the ages from inside his own half but Leinster couldn’t capitalise.
With the additions coming into the squad this summer and the age-profile of the team, the future is bright for this Leinster side but they will feel like they let this one slip from their grasp.
Their disastrous start cost them so, so dear. The lineout failed to function, they lost Isa Nacewa to a silly yellow card and they found themselves conceding a point a minute.
With a vociferous crowd breathing down on them, the last thing Leinster needed to do was hand Clermont an in to the game but they did just that as Ringrose’s nothing kick was capitalised on by Nick Abendanon who worked a good counter with fellow Englishman David Strettle.
Leinster were scrambling and after a couple of phases, Stettle chipped in behind – taking a thumping tackle from Isa Nacewa for his troubles – and Peceli Yato raced on to the ball to touch down.
Morgan Parra converted and within five minutes, Leinster were trailing.
A poor start was compounded when, having gotten away with that late shot, Leinster’s captain Nacewa was sent to the sin-bin for a tug on Strettle as Clermont went on the attack again and Parra made it 10-0 from the tee.
It got worse thanks to a lineout meltdown. Richardt Strauss missed with his first two throws and after Parra spotted Joey Carbery out of position the Ireland hooker was asked to go to the tail again. Again, he over-shot his target.
What followed was inevitable. Clermont went through a couple of phases and Strettle crossed in the right corner. Parra’s missed conversion gave some light relief, but with 15 minutes gone the game was getting away from the visitors.
Nacewa returned and slowly, Leinster fought their way into the game. Dan Leavy smashed Remi Lamerat and forced a turnover, but Fritz Lee turned the ball back over after Devin Toner got isolated and forced a penalty.
When Clermont went to the corner and turned to their maul, things looked ominous but the Leinster pack coped well and when the ball squirted out Luke McGrath pounced and moved the ball wide where Ringrose carried the ball into the French side’s half and fed Carbery. Just as he looked to put Nacewa away, Strettle hit him with a covering tackle and the ball went forward. Chance gone.
They probed wide and had Strauss held Ringrose’s tip-on on the right after Robbie Henshaw had released Nacewa up the left they might have been in, but the passes that stuck so well against Wasps were going to deck under Clermont’s pressure.
Carbery saved Johnny Sexton’s bacon when the out-half’s pass went to deck and Scott Spedding kicked and ahead and collected, only to be felled by the covering full-back and attempts to counter came to a halt when Sexton’s pass went forward.
Parra missed a chance to extend his side’s lead after Rhys Ruddock went high on Damian Chouly and Leinster reserved their best period for right before the break as they managed to hold on to the ball through a host of phases with Carbery and Ruddock prominent before Nigel Owens punished Clermont for going off their feet and Sexton reduced the half-time deficit to 15-3.
Having finished the first-half on the front-foot, the three-time champions began in the same vein after the break; working a penalty in their own ’22 and then releasing Jack Conan with a clever front-of-the-the-lineout move that resulted in Sebastien Vahaamahina going off his feet and Sexton pulled back another penalty.
As they tired, Clermont’s discipline was slipping and a high tackle from Yato on Ringrose allowed Sexton steer his side back into enemy territory.
Again, the Irish side held on to the ball and, again, Owens’ arm went up after Lee was penalised for not releasing and Sexton made it a one-score game from the tee.
Leo Cullen sent Sean Cronin into the fray, but his decision to kick his first possession away almost ended in disaster as Abendanon’s counter up the left was followed by a searing Yato break up the right. The Fijian scorched past the replacement hooker but Luke McGrath brilliantly covered across and forced him into touch.
Instead of extending their lead, Clermont saw Leinster eat into it further as Carbery and Sexton combined off counter-attack ball to get into the opposition half and Chouly strayed offside to hand the Ireland out-half his fourth penalty.
They thought they had gone in front in the 56th minute with a wonderful try, but an eagle-eyed piece of officiating caught them out.
From their own half, Leinster worked the ball wide to Nacewa who had Leavy in support. He secured quick ball, before Sexton threw the ball inside to McFadden who raced clear and fed it back to the out-half who spotted Henshaw on the wing.
The centre was stopped short, but Leavy forced his way over from close range. His joy was short-lived, Owens went back and looked at the initial ruck and found that the flanker had held Aurelien Rougerie to create the initial gap.
Instead of going behind, Clermont went further ahead as Parra kicked the penalty over. It was the game-turning moment.
Already on a yellow, Nacewa had an escape when he thundered into Scott Spedding from the kick-off but Owens felt a penalty sufficed. Leinster turned over the maul but then went backwards on their own scrum and needed a despairing Henshaw tackle on Remi Lamerat to force a forward pass.
Instead, Clermont went to the boot and Camille Lopez dropped a goal to stretch the lead back out to nine points.
Just as it looked like they were running out of ideas, Ringrose came up with a sensational try from well within his own half beating three defenders and dummying a third to score from 60m.
Sexton converted, but Lopez kicked a penalty almost instantly after Josh van der Flier went off his feet to make it 24-19 with eight minutes remaining.
Spedding missed a chance to put the result beyond doubt from inside his own half after Leinster strayed offside but Lopez dropped a goal after Toner failed to claim the restart to make it an eight point game.
Sexton cancelled that score out with a difficult kick from the touchline, meaning Leinster had 60 seconds to score a try.
The main thing they needed to do was catch the restart, but somehow Damian Penaud rose unchallenged to claim it deep in Leinster territory and Clermont went through their phases and saw it out.
CLERMONT - - S Spedding; D Strettle, A Rougerie (D Penaud 57), R Lamerat (P Fernandez 66), N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra (L Radosavlijevic 70); R Chaume (E Falgoux 65), B Kayser (J Ulugia 54), D Zirakashvili; A Iturria, S Vahaamahina (P Jedrasiak 70); D Chouly (capt), P Yato (A Lapandry 54), F Lee.
LEINSTER – J Carbery; F McFadden (Z Kirchner 73), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 65) ; J McGrath (P Dooley 61), R Strauss (S Cronin 50), T Furlong (M Bent 72); D Toner (R Molony 61), H Triggs; R Ruddock, D Leavy (J van der Flier 67), J Conan.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)