Monday 18 November 2019

Nightmare for Leinster


YOU wonder what kind of weird correlation floats about the Irish rugby air. The national team under Declan Kidney hits the skids sometime around the turn of 2010 and Leinster, brash and brilliant, move in to pick up the slack. Then Kidney's side, with a gentle infusion of new blood, exhibits the first shoots of regeneration and Leinster, all of a sudden, begin to look frail and leaden-footed.

Leinster weren't such red-hot favourites to beat Clermont at the Aviva Stadium yesterday that defeat was entirely out of the question, but it was the manner of their 28-21 reverse that shocked – the way they were mauled and bullied up front for 80 minutes, out-classed, in fact, in virtually every department on the field. It wasn't heresy to suggest the slim margin of defeat flattered them.

The last act of the game belonged to them. And how crucial it might turn out to be. Jonny Sexton orchestrated a break from deep inside his own half and an all too rare flowing move ended with Fergus McFadden touching down in the corner. It gave them an improbable losing bonus point and maintained their tentative grip on second place in Pool 5, their tournament lives hanging by a thread, but still hanging nonetheless.

McFadden's late intervention couldn't mask a bitterly disappointing day, however. The signs were visible prior to yesterday that Leinster's quest for a history-making three-in-a-row had unearthed a few cracks in their foundation and their weaknesses were ruthlessly exploited by a Clermont side in the mood to go places this season and with a score to settle with their hosts for a couple of painful recent defeats.

None more so than their inside-centre, Wesley Fofana, who had the Leinster line at his mercy at the end of last year's semi-final in Bordeaux, but fatally dropped the ball at the vital moment. When the chance for redemption came towards the end of the first-half yesterday, Fofana made no mistake. Ten points behind at the interval – although not quite of Northampton proportions – Leinster already looked to have a small mountain to climb.

The consolation, if it existed, lay in the fact they succumbed to, surely, one of the great all-round performances in the short but distinguished history of this tournament. Perhaps there was something inevitable about this. The money that has been swirling around the French game, the global talent the clubs have been assembling, had to lead some day to a club emerging with the potential to sweep all before it. Yesterday, Clermont announced themselves loudly as the team everybody else will be anxious to avoid.

The challenge in assessing Clermont's magnificence is where to begin. You could start with Aurelien Rougerie's beautiful off-loading or the strength of Siti Sivivatu on the wing or with the sheer controlling brilliance of Morgan Parra at scrum-half, mysteriously not first-choice for France. Parra kicked eight of out nine yesterday and the one that got away shaved an upright. It was careless, perhaps, to allow Leinster a bonus point at the death. Otherwise, the French team never put a foot wrong.

Up front they didn't beat Leinster, they utterly humiliated them. For Mike Ross, in particular, the re-run of the game will make for harrowing viewing. Ross's woes in the scrum were so pronounced that Joe Schmidt was forced to make a change on the hour-mark after the tight-head had conceded his sixth penalty. Grim humiliation for Ross, worrying times for Leinster.

So on to January then, big performances needed against Scarlets and the Chiefs to keep their hopes of history intact. "Barely alive," Brian O'Driscoll said afterwards. "Still an outside possibility." With their absent talisman still nowhere near returning, that just about summed it up.

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