Clermont 8-24 LeinsterLeinster caught the ‘Fever in the Aviva’ and produced a ‘Blue Magic’ performance in a 24-8 win over ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. The win puts Leinster five points clear at the top of Pool 2 ahead Clermont and Racing Metro,tied with nine points and Saracens, bottom, with only six points. It was Leinster’s 100th Heineken Cup game and was probably their finest.
44,873 people packed the Aviva Stadium despite the freezing weather of between -5ºC and -10ºC. It was the 3rd highest attendance at a Heineken Cup pool game and the highest attendance at a Heineken Cup pool game in Ireland. The crowd was treated to elaborate pre game festivities involving a Santa Claus clad in blue popping out of an oversized Christmas cracker. Then with Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle playing and blue flags flying, emerged the Leinster team to a tremendous uproar. The crowd, larger than any at Ireland’s Autumn Internationals, were pumped up and ready for some rugby.
Leinster got off to a blazing start just as they had done a week earlier when Shane Horgan scored a try in the 3rd minute of the game but this time they never looked back. Leinster dominated for the whole 80 minutes. They played sublime rugby and looked as if they could beat any side in the world on the night.
Both sides have New Zealanders at the helm, Leinster’s coach is Josef Schmidt and Clermont’s coach is Vern Cotter, and like to keep the ball alive in attack. This was evident in the game and the result was fast paced,fluid rugby. Leinster’s training was undisrupted in the lead up to the game for the first time in a few weeks and this clearly showed in Leinster’s execution. The link up play in the back line was world class and that couple with their great speed and acceleration led to numerous breaks and big gains.
Josef Schmidt had a clear defined gameplan. He wanted depth and width in attack. He wanted to spread the ball wide from quick ball to utilise his team’s great speed. His decision to start Eoin Reddan ahead of Isaac Boss was a questionable one as Boss had a great game a week earlier against Clermont. However, looking back on it, it was a genius decision. Eoin Reddan perfectly suited the gameplan he employed and was able to shine in the bright lights. Boss,on the other hand, is a player who plays the game competitive around the fringes. They are two scrum-halves with very different styles but both produce the results Schmidt wants. Leinster has a vast playbook with the option of starting either one of these guys. The scrum-half position was formerly a liability for Leinster, it is now one of their strengths.
The Leinster front row comprised of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross was one of the keys the victory. Cian Healy deservedly won Man of the Match honours. He scored two tries, one in 8th minute and the other in the 43rd minute. Both tries, one early in the game and the other just after the interval, gave Leinster such a boost and helped them set the tone and control the pace in both halves. I have complained about Strauss’ on a few occasions before but I cannot stress enough how much this guy means to Leinster with his terrific scrummaging and rucking. Mike Ross, is another great scrummager and these three guys along with players like Heinke van der Merwe and Stan Wright(currently injured-Achilles) help give Leinster one of the best front rows in Leinster. I must also commend the Leinster scrum as they overpowered a strong Clermont scrum.
Leinster’s defense, which had been good for the most part in their round 3 matchup with Clermont except for a couple key missed tackles that led to Clermont tries, stepped up today. In recent years, Leinster have put a lot more focus on their defense which helped them greatly in their Heineken Cup triumph in 2009. In this game, they frustrated Clermont and forced them into some errors. The most notable error occurred in the 2nd half when Benoit Baby threw an errand pass into touch inside his own 22. Leinster took a quick lineout and on-form Sean O’Brien crossed over to give them their third try.
The return of Brian O’Driscoll, from a jaw injury he sustained in Ireland’s final Autumn International against Argentina, was a huge boost for the backs. His presence alone makes the team better as opposing teams double team him leaving men open and when they slack off in defence, he is a lethal finisher. Isa Nacewa was, in my opinion, Leinster’s best back on the day and he contributed in offense and defense. He was reliable under the high ball and he also had a very athletic interception on a Brock James cross field kick in the direction of Julien Malzieu. Jonathan Sexton had a great day with the boot(4/5) and his early penalty attempt that hit the post was his first miss in the Heineken Cup all season. He had been 10/10 up to that point.
Clermont, will now have to pull out the stocks to make it through to the next round of the Heineken Cup. They are a great side at home in their fortress of rugby but on the road, they are a different team. They seem to pick their games to show up for and are often unmotivated. They have won only 1 away game this season in the Top 14 with their only win coming against a bad Bourgoin team and have only won 1 game in Ireland in their past 5 visits and that win was all the way back in 2000 when they beat Connacht. Once again, they had problems kicking in Dublin and the normally pin point Morgan Parra went 1/3 so they switched kicking duties to Brock James who would miss his only kick, a conversion of Napolioni Nalaga’s late try. They had more possession than Leinster but it was just one of those days when their offense just wasn’t clicking and they couldn’t convert their time with the ball into points.
This win was Leinster’s 7th straight win in the Lansdowne Road/Aviva Stadium and was their 17th straight home win. By the way, last year’s Magners League final in which Leinster fell to the Ospreys 17-12, was classed as a neutral site game. I really don’t like writing an article like this one where all I can say is positive things about one side as it usually isn’t great journalism but in this cases, I’m telling you the truth. Leinster have been playing great ever since that Sean O’Brien inspired comeback in Llanelli a few weeks ago. Leinster are on-form right now and I feel bad for any teams standing in their way. They will be playing Ulster in the Magners League next weekend and I don’t see how Ulster will be able to contain them. Its worth noting that three of Leinster’s last 5 Heineken Cup pool games have been played in front of a crowd of 35,000+ which is truly astounding. I also think that Leinster should push to get more than just the two games they are currently allowed to play in the Aviva Stadium. They should look into hosting all their Heineken Cup games in the beautiful facility which could be anywhere from 3-5 games as well as some of the big Magners League games against rivals like Munster. Leinster were unable to get a bonus point but that doesn’t take anything away from the truly outstanding performance by the men in blue.