Brent Pope: Leo Cullen would have been justified to make a couple of key changes at half-time
Read Brent Pope every Monday in the Herald
The pain of defeat was etched all over Leinster out-half Johnny Sexton’s face at the end of an enthralling European semi-final. Sexton has never lost a semi-final with Leinster, and this ill be particularly hard to take.
Despite a terrible start, it was a game Leinster could could have salvaged. Rugby is about momentum and confidence at critical moments, and in the first 40 minutes in Lyon, Leinster were very poor.
A mis-firing lineout, a retreating scrum and a failure to win possession at the breakdown saw Leinster limp into the dressing rooms 15-3 down at half time.
It should have been 18-0, as Clermont’s usually accurate Morgan Parra missed a simple enough penalty kick before Johnny Sexton at last gave the travelling Leinster supporters a whiff of a chance.
Coach Leo Cullen must have been tempted to ring the changes at halftime, such was Clermont’s dominance. Cullen would have been more than justified to look at Seán Cronin to resurrect the lineout and Josh van der Flier to gain some parity in the possession stakes.
But Cullen was loyal and the tide changed. Leinster were a different animal in the second spell, when they finally realised that if they could hold onto the ball and build multiple phases then Clermont were still within reach, just.
Leinster’s ball-carriers were starting to make huge inroads and none more so than the likes of Rhys Ruddock and No 8 Jack Conan. With space in behind Clermont, Leinster looked a much diffident side, and Clermont although not overly concerned at this stage, started to make that old mistake of watching the clock and defending a lead.
Sexton pulled nine points back with his trusty boot but games often hinge on single moments.
Leinster flanker Dan Leavy, who had made a schoolboy defensive error in the first half when he gave the Clermont winger the outside space close to his own line, appeared to have made up for that with a fantastic try that would have seen Leinster in front.
Leavy was on the end of a break from the game’s most incisive player, Garry Ringrose, and while Leavy just had to pick the ball up and go over, it was still the comeback that had Clermont on their knees.
Leinster celebrated like it was the match-winner and maybe it would have been. But Leavy was adjudged to have held onto French centre Aurelien Rougerie’s foot for too long during a ruck in the lead-up to the try.
Technically, referee Nigel Owens was right to come all the way up-field and award a penalty to Clermont, but in my opinion Aurélien Rougerie was never in a position to make the tackle. In another place and time it would have gone unnoticed.
Parra knocked over the three-pointer and it was a 10-point turnaround. The psychological momentum had shifted back Clermont’s way and the home crowd, so quiet for most of the second half, found their voice.
Clermont upped their game and you felt that Leinster had let the opportunity go. Enter the magnificent Ringrose. Such was the young Leinster centre’s impact on the game that Lions coach Mr Gatland may be hoping in the back of his mind that he can find a way for this special young player to make it out to New Zealand.
Ringrose’s try, and the one to give Leinster yet another unlikely bite at the cherry, was mesmerising. Despite Leinster’s disappointment, it will give rugby followers hours of pleasure. His ability to drift into space, together with a step and a dummy, saw him score a brilliant individual try.
Sexton converted and in a topsy turvy second half, Leinster were still very much in it. Leinster needed to be more patient during this chasing period, especially from the restarts where Joey Carbery’s lack of experience at full-back was targeted by Clermont. Leinster needed a more secure exit strategy, and while running the ball had brought them back into the game when it was really needed they should have kicked for territory.
Clermont’s Man of the Match, out-half Camille Lopez, sealed the game with two drop goals, the second of which was a real risk given Leinster were still in with a chance of converted try win.
It’s hard to say who deserved to win this match, and while Sexton said that his team were “just not good enough”, in many ways they were.
In fact they still made it back to a stage in the game where they could have won, so they had the ability, they just paid the price for some basic mistakes, mistakes that when eradicated for long periods in the second spell saw a young enough Leinster team still challenged one of the form teams in Europe.
Cullen will not be happy with the poor set-piece play in the first half, nor with Leinster’s lack of discipline at crucial times but you have to give them huge credit for a brave fightback.
This Leinster team is still young and at the start of the year you would have dreaded this fixture.
Yet despite their youth, Leinster showed that they can match it with any team in the Northern Hemisphere.
On an individual basis Ringrose was outstanding all game, while Robbie Henshaw, Sexton and Nacewa all came into their own in the second spell.
The ever exciting Carbery, while dangerous in attack, was found out in a couple of his basic duties at full-back, and in the first half seemed unable to get near the ball in the air.
Carbery may have to have few lessons from his Irish team-mate Simon Zebo or Rob Kearney on how to better compete in the air, but is a huge talent and still inexperienced at this level out of position.
Grunt men Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath did plenty of good work in the Leinster cockpit, but found Clermont’s scrum tough, while the backrow especially No 8 Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock worked hard to get Leinster on the front foot.
It is easier to take a loss when you have played well and have just been beaten by a better team, but when you leave chances behind it will sting.
Leinster will, of course, cheer on the team that beat them, but to me Saracens look almost unstoppable at this stage. Clermont will need a huge performance away from France to win that match, especially given they have never done it, Saracens have.
Of course Leinster have a PRO12 semi-final to look forward to, as will Munster.
They need to get some silverware back but like all things in life it won’t come easy, especially if it comes down to an All-Ireland Munster v Leinster shootout.