Leinster in the driving seat
Leinster 24 Clermont 8
A crowd of 44,873, the third biggest attendance at a pool game in the history of the Heineken Cup, braved biting cold to come to the Aviva Stadium yesterday evening to see if Leinster could match their terrific display of last weekend in Clermont.
Fittingly many of that crowd were kids, for not only did they get to see their team win, they got to witness a cracking game in which the champions of 2009 laid down a marker to be champions of 2011. It was brilliant rugby.
Afterwards Joe Schmidt said that Santa wouldn't have to stop in his house such was the quality of the display. His kids may have different ideas but get the message. Everything about Leinster was first class. After the first leg Clermont coach Vern Cotter had a bit of a whinge about Leinster not showing his players enough respect.
Before they flew out last night you hope the French domestic champions were busying themselves paying compliments to the home team, who are firmly in control of Pool 2.
In the process a few reputations were further enhanced. Those who lost out in the autumn -- Sean O'Brien getting only one run for Ireland and Mike Ross none at all -- were cornerstones of this display. If Ross locked the scrum against one of the most destructive scrummagers around in Thomas Domingo, then O'Brien did his basics and then more besides. The man of the match award went to Cian Healy but by a distance O'Brien was the best player on the field.
If it was as impressive a performance as Leinster have ever produced in Europe, then it was predicated on exploding into the game. They did so with pace and aggression putting Clermont in immediate trouble. And it started with the power of their defence, the first clattering hit on Julien Malzieu setting the tone. Then it continued with the quality of their set-piece, which was really solid.
How big a role in all of this is played by Richardt Strauss is hard to say but very quickly the South African has become very important to Leinster. It is understood they will have to get by without him for a while if he has to go ahead with a hand operation, and if so they will feel the loss.
The measure of Leinster's superiority was in the gap to the finishing line: with half an hour left to play they were 24-3 ahead. It had started with the first of Healy's two tries on eight minutes; extended with a perfectly timed penalty just before the break; and then the opening period of the second half was devastating, with Healy getting his second and O'Brien closing the show.
And it wasn't as if Clermont couldn't be bothered. Their response to Leinster's early onslaught was aggressive and in Ti'i Paulo they had a dynamic ball carrier in close. So too Sione Lauaki. The No 8 was desperately close with a drive to the line when Clermont were battling well in the first half, but referee Nigel Owens ruled against them, and then penalised them moments later -- complete with a dramatic lecture for Lauaki. From that point you never felt they would be in the referee's good books.
And they needed to be, for without something special they couldn't get back in the game. Morgan Parra pulled back three points for them on 17 minutes but then missed on 29 when he could have closed the gap to a point. Instead it was Sexton -- who got through a big evening's tackling -- who made it 10-3 with a penalty just before the break.
Leinster came out for the second period with exactly the same intensity as the first. There were two referrals upstairs -- first for Nathan Hines who was stopped by Thibaut Privat, and then Healy -- and the decision came back positive in the second case. Before they could recover, Clermont were in trouble again.
In trying to play their way out of it Brock James threw a poor pass wide, and with his colleagues giving him dirty looks instead of defending the throw, Jamie Heaslip took it quickly for O'Brien to score. Sexton tacked on the extras and 24-3, with Leinster in that sort of form, was a game-ending scoreline.
It did change though: Clermont inevitably had much of the ball in the final quarter and Naipolioni Nalaga got over from a maul on 70 minutes. It didn't do much for their mood. Yet again Clermont have gone head to head with an Irish province and over two legs come off worse, leaving their survival chances remote.
It will take a spectacular fall from this height for Leinster not to progress from here. If you were a neutral you'd be hoping they stay around to the finish. This is the way the game is meant to be played.
Scorers -- Leinster: C Healy 2 tries; S O'Brien try; J Sexton 3 cons, pen Clermont: N Nalaga try; M Parra pen
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 58); C Healy (H van der Merwe 64), R Strauss, M Ross (C Newland 71), L Cullen (D Toner 64), N Hines, S O'Brien, J Heaslip, S Jennings
Clermont: B Baby (T Lavea 75); N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), G Williams, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra (K Senio 68); T Domingo (L Faure 50), T Paulo (M Ledesma 45), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 75), J Pierre, T Privat, J Bonnaire, S Lauaki (E Vermelulen 50), A Lapandry (A Audebert h-t)
Referee: N Owens (Wales)