Wednesday 20 November 2019

Reigning champions are down and almost out

Scintillating Clermont take full advantage of a Leinster side that are staring at the exit door – and deservedly so, writes Neil Francis

Golda Meir said in her war against the Arab world that they had a secret weapon, "no alternative". In sport, too, it is one of the great motivational and driving forces that a team can have. Leinster had no alternative but to win this game to keep their aspirations on track. During the week, I had doubted Clermont's ability but I had never doubted Leinster. Sometimes it is important to take stock on how a team is doing and after this most recent audit you would have to say that Leinster's graph is in descent.

Before the match you questioned whether the French side had the stomach for the battle, whether their brittleness of spirit – particularly when they play in Dublin – would once again come again to haunt them, and you challenged them to refute the notion that they are not a champion side. All has changed and disquietingly you watched as Leinster became unwitting participants in unravelling the contradiction that is Clermont.

As certain important time targets elapsed, Leinster's priorities changed from aspiring to bonus-point their visitors, which would have needed a bright start and a firm declaration of intent. After 30 minutes, it was fairly clear that not only were Leinster not going to bonus-point this game but that they were going to struggle to win it. After Fofana's try in the 35th minute, you sensed that the French were going to bonus-point Leinster and with 10 minutes left with all sense of anything viable being taken away from Leinster one moment of Clermont weakness in the last minute of play gifted them a bonus point, which may or may not keep them in the competition.

I said at the start of the competition that 20 points would see them through into seventh or eighth position – that is still attainable and Leinster when they finally rouse themselves are a side that nobody would want as a best runner-up but if the truth is told they do not deserve to be still in the competition – not just on the evidence of yesterday's match where they were well beaten – but also on their starting day performance against the Exeter Chiefs. Yesterday, Leinster were so lacking and they gave such encouragement to Clermont that a lot of what they did fanned the inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement for the French side. The penalty count was reasonably even, 14-12 against the French side, but it was where Leinster gave away most of their penalties that was crucial and once again the set piece, so good over in the Auvergne, came back to bite Leinster in the arse.

Mike Ross gave away five penalties at scrum time and replacement Cian Healy managed to give away two daft penalties in the short time that he was on the pitch. Morgan Parra managed to convert most of those opportunities and that was the match. Some video analyst worked out how to play against Mike Ross and Raphael Chaume went into the game armed with the knowledge of how to put the squeeze on Leinster's tight-head.

Clermont did to Leinster what Leinster had done to them in the first match – they got into the game early, they controlled the ball for long periods and they tackled and showed an appetite at the tackle zone which Leinster, as the home side, should have displayed. Clermont were uncompromisingly direct at the breakdown and despite Leinster having the only groundhog of the day, they nicked an awful lot of Leinster unprotected ball – particularly in midfield. Yet another reason why Brian O'Driscoll is missed so much.

Clermont, too, were uninhibited in going wide and Leinster encouraged them to do so. The Leinster drift is so passive-aggressive that they gave away 10 to 15 metres every time Clermont came on to the ball. I do use the term 'passive-aggressive' advisedly.

The stats show that Leinster only lost two lineouts but the quality of their ball was worthless and there were quite a number of poorly advised slap-backs, from Leo Cullen in particular, and quite a number of balls that didn't go where they were supposed to go. Ross fortuitously picking up an overthrow at the back of the line-out in the 23rd minute. Once again the lack of a quality No 5 exposed Leinster. When Toner replaced the anonymous Damian Browne early in the second half it made little difference. The acquisition of Mike McCarthy for next year is not going to be the answer either. The absence of Kevin McLaughlin at lineout time was glaring.

Leinster could never really get any speed or intensity into their attack and their forays looked like meanderings as opposed to well-thought out interventions and they were well shepherded by a very willing Clermont defence. You have to ask yourself whether Leinster were mentally and physically spent after their exertions last week, they did look quite a bit off the pace and it was the away side who played with verve and elevated audacity. You also sensed that it was their day when Wesley Fofana, of all people, managed to get Clermont's only try. This came after Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu with the help of Lee Byrne got down the left. Leinster committed too many tacklers to Nalaga in the corner and Fofana's zig-zag approach on his support line cut the gain line in two as he latched onto Parra's pass and exorcised the ghosts of last year's semi-final.

Leinster's priorities changed with a 16-6 half-time deficit. Their high-tempo game goes out the window when they have to chase and when they gave the ball away too cheaply and gave away stupid penalties their chase became hopeless. They did manage to hold out Clermont in a big series of scrums while O'Brien was in the bin for tackling Sivivatu illegally.

It was about the only quality that you could associate with Leinster of old – they didn't give up and they caught Clermont cold with a quick lineout throw close to the line, but then they kept on giving away penalties and coughing up the ball and the day ended when McFadden got over the line after some brilliant inter-play with Sexton. The out-halves conversion attempt told you all you needed to know about where Leinster are at this moment in time and they will have to scrap it out with six teams that are still in contention for the best runner-up position. The truth is they will not be defending their championship this year.

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