Let down by Brock James, Clermont Auvergne were the only team left in Europe capable of matching the ruthless Leinster machine and knocking them out of the competition, writes Killian Woods
We are now down to the wire in European Cup rugby, with Leinster flying high after their narrow one point victory over Clermont Auvergne. Their pulsating tie with the current French champions at the RDS typified the meeting of two teams with a thorough and comprehensive grasp on how to play an exciting brand of rugby that is pleasing on the eye.
Whether it was the sheer physicality on show or the pace these two sides managed to incorporate into their attack, Leinster and Clermont dispelled any thoughts that their individual attacking prowess would cancel each other out. The contest progressed in a prolonged end-to-end fashion in which both teams dominated particular sections of the game and for the Leinster’s part, maximized their effort-to-points ratio.
Looking for one specific aspect that allowed Leinster claim a narrow victory, one must look no further than the lack of a competent place-kicker in the Clermont team. Normally a clinical kicker in all manners, Brock James had – by any fly half’s standards – an unacceptable performance from the boot. The Australian kicker sacrificed a combined 23 points, missing four penalties, one conversion and three drop-goals.
Though expecting James to kick 100 per cent of his place kicks is asking for a very high standard, his missed conversion alone would have sufficed to see Clermont through to the semi-final – and even converting a handful of those opportunities would have seen his team comfortable winners. So if Brock James is to be so harshly singled out as the sole perpetrator for Clermont’s loss, then why should Jonathon Sexton not be individually praised for his key role?
Supposedly out of form coming into this crunch fixture, Sexton kicked 19 of Leinster’s 29 nine points, missing just one place kick in the process. It is always easy to single out one player for a loss, and the Irish public are renowned for scapegoating the fly half for a loss of any magnitude. Therefore in victory, a fly half who maximizes his teams points from place kicking to a rate of 87 per cent accuracy should be lauded as a game winner.
Although Sexton should be praised for his game-changing performance, light still needs to be shone on the worrying number of points Leinster conceded in a home game with so much at stake. As highlighted previously, Leinster could have found themselves on the wrong end of an irreversible points deficit if James had been more accurate with the boot. The Heineken Cup champions conceded eleven penalties, an unforgivable amount for a team at this level.
Giving away numerous penalties within the kicking range of an average fly half at such a high level of rugby almost invites any opposition to round off a game with ease. For future ties, Leinster cannot rely on any team being significantly weak in this fundamental area of modern day rugby.
The manner of this performance overall, though, would have to be pleasing for the Leinster coach Michael Cheika, even if they were the undeserved winners. Clermont Auvergne were never going to arrive for this Heineken Cup quarter final with a game plan revolving around anything but attacking rugby. Therefore, positives must be taken from the fact that Leinster managed to balance fending off the current French champions for large parts of the game, while still finding a method to enact their own style of attacking rugby.
It must not be taken for granted how difficult a job it was for Leinster to balance the defensive necessity with the need to beat their opponents at their own free-flowing rugby game. No team this season has come to the RDS and been capable of carrying their own game plan with the efficiency Clermont had on Friday evening, and it must be said that no other team is probably capable of doing so.
The visitors managed to win all five of their scrums against a ferocious Leinster front row containing Stan Wright, CJ van der Linde and Cian Healy in reserve, while also turning over two Leinster scrums. In addition, their domination in claiming eight of their own eleven lineouts, while sufficiently challenging Leinster at theirs, just shows how this marauding French team were very close to a win in all aspects of the game.
The statistics between the sides in all areas, apart from place kicking and penalties conceded, only minutely tip in the favour of Leinster, so on that basis the Blues were good for the win. The players and coaches can take solace in the fact that no team remaining in the competition will be able to match their own ruthlessness in defence, with particular reference to the breakdown where Clermont equalled Leinster’s 96 per cent recycling success rate, and their 85 per cent success in the tackle.
Figuratively speaking, Leinster have contested a mini-final – and in doing so overcame a major hurdle. Their combination of luck and sheer efficiency has pulled them through. Roll on France.