30 Apr 2012

Clermont vs Leinster - Heineken Cup Semi-Final Review

The stage was set. Clermont; backed by a partisan home crowd at their temporary home of the Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux were down by four points. Camped on the Leinster tryline and riding on the back of a tide of pure emotion, Les Jaunards knew that one last surge was all that was needed to achieve Heineken Cup immortality. The stadium was rocking. The crowd were almost riotous. Over 34,000 supporters packed to the rafters, were on their feet, waiting for their moment. They could smell blood and Leinster, the reigning champions of Europe, were in danger of being engulfed as so may have been before them.

For Leinster though, a different scenario awaited them, and one which all great teams have to go through to earn that tag of 'greatness'. They were facing a sea of yellow. The men from Dublin had one last wave of ferocious Clermont attackers to ward off. One last heroic and energy sapping burst of heart, grit and determination. A victory would earn them a place in the final of Europe's most illustrious competiton once more...and a chance to cement their place in rugby history as a truly dominant European team. This would be their 3rd final appearance in 4 years after all.

Small Margins

In the end....the game was settled by the tiniest of margins. Leinster finished on top and Clermont were out. The joy and exhuberance was their for all to see on the Leinster players' faces. The relief though was even more palpable. It had taken a monumental effort. In truth, neither side deserved to lose. Eighty minutes of this titanic struggle had been split by the tiniest of margins; effectively the width of Wesley Fofana's bicep. He had seemingly won the tie in the most dramatic of fashions but all was not what it seemed....

Receiving the ball close to the tryline, Fofana angled into the line, piercing the Leinster defence before his outstretched arm placed the ball down behind him. His adrenaline fulled reaction provoked pure ecstacy from his supporters. Clermont had done it. They would be in their first European Final! That feeling of joy would soon be replaced by despair. Fofana had knocked on...

The video footage was conclusive. Fofana had placed the ball on his arm rather than the turf in the process of losing the ball foward.Wayne Barnes rightly whistled for 'NO TRY' and there it was. Clermont's opportunity had gone. The men from Montferrand had come agonisingly close but had fallen short...again.

Always the Bridesmaids...never the Bride

Perennially the bridesmaids in French rugby and never the bride; 2012 was meant to be Clermont's in Europe. Ten consecutive losses in French Top 14 finals had understandably focused them on earning the tag of Champions of France first. In all honesty, Europe had been an afterthought. Their victory in the 2010 Top 14 final had changed things though. Europe was now the priority.

The game started at a frantic pace. Leinster beginning gloriously, passing the ball wide after accepting the kickoff,  and showing quick hands from Rob Kearney  amongst others to allow Isa Nacewa the tiniest of margins to scurry down the right touchline. He was brought down, but Leinster's attacking intent from deep inside their own half was shown. Clermont may have been unbeaten in 42 consecutive home games, but Leinster were not going to surrender. If they were to go down, they were to go down fighting.

Vulcan Death Grip

The first half was a real arm wrestle, ending in Clermont's favour by 12 points to 6. Four penalties came from Australian import Brock James for Clermont, while Jonny Sexton was successful with his two attempts. As well as Leinster started the match, Clermont were beginning to win the ascendency battle.

As former England centre Will Greenwood alluded during the half-time break of Sky's coverage of the match...Clermont (a team affectionately known as the Vulcans by their fans) seemed to have Leinster in a 'Vulcan death grip'. Their power was immense and the ferocity of their tight five was at times unbelievable. At times they seemed to devour all that was in front of them. Clermont props Lionel Faure and Davit Zirakashvilli were huge around the park and dominant at the set-piece. Leinster it seemed were pleading for the half-time whistle. Something needed to be done to halt the Clermont charge.

"Kearney Time"

Whatever Leinster coach Joe Schmidt said during the break had a real effect. Memories of this game could have been synonomous with Wesley Fofana's last minute effort if he had touched down correctly....instead it will be remembered for 10 minutes of 'Keaney time'.

Rob Kearney, the Irish full back simply took over after the break and was head and shoulders abover everyone else on the field. Firstly he sliced through the Clermont defence before feeding thundering prop Cian Healey for the game's only try. He then continued to take every high ball with ease and converted a 'Frans Steyn like' drop goal from close to the half-way line to give them his side a valuable lead. This 10 minutes of action left the Clermont team and supporters shell-shocked. The Leinster fans though were in bouyant mood and enjoying their little 'Kearneyval'. The momentum had well and truly swung in Leinster's direction.
Creaking Set Piece

Clermont coach Vern Cotter attempted to reverse the momentum Leinster had built by making some substitutions, most notably taking off the two props mentioned earlier; Faure and Zuratkashvilli. The influence of those decisions were not for the better. Clermont's scrum and lineout, normally dominant weapons, began to creak. Brock James also horribly missed an attempt at goal to cut down the lead, evoking memories of his dreadful display in a quarterfinal between the two teams a couple of years ago. His temperament was questioned once more.

With 2 minutes left though, Clermont still managed to force their way up field. Sivivatu used his magical toes to help Clermont gain some yards before things clicked into gear for the hosts as they surged towards the line. Fofana knocked on and the rest was history.

If Clermont continue to play with such passion, there time will surely come. They have far too much quality in their ranks to not succeed eventually and the belief is building. Leinster though showed their champions quality and had that bit of luck that you need to win on the big occasions. They were tested to the fullest and this result arguably eclipsed their victory over Munster at Croke Park in the Heineken cup Semi in 2009. Leinster will now face Ulster at Twickenham in the Final of the Heineken Cup to earn the crown 'Champions of Europe 2012'.

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  1. Nice piece. Small correction, the 2009 semi was at Croke Park, Dublin, witnessed by over 82,000 fans(world record attendance for a club game).

  2. Thanks for the correction.

    Bring on the final!

  3. Anonymous01 May, 2012

    World record attendance at the time - Saracens v Harlequins this year at Twickenham has since beaten it.

  4. Yes I seem to remember there being a pretty high attendance at one of the Top 14 games this year too played at the Stade de France between Toulouse and Stade Francais.

    Not sure how many attended but it it was probably a similar number.

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