RUGBY ROUND UP
Opportunity slips through Leinster fingers
By Daire Walsh
A nightmare opening proved to be Leinster’s undoing in Lyon on Sunday afternoon, as Leo Cullen’s side bowed out of the European Rugby Champions Cup at the semi-final stage.
Their opponents, Top 14 outfit Clermont Auvergne, built up an early 15-0 advantage over the Blues, with Peceli Yato and David Strettle crossing over for the French side. Thanks to 17 points from the boot of Jonathan Sexton, and a wonderful solo try from Garry Ringrose, Leinster gave themselves a fighting chance in the second-half – before Clermont ultimately booked their place in the Edinburgh decider with five points to spare (27-22).
This was a hotly-anticipated encounter for the Irish province, and following their determined victory over Connacht at the Sportsground eight days earlier, they were eager to maintain their winning run at Matmut Stadium de Gerland.
A number of international players made returns to the starting line-up, but Leinster were forced to field without the injured quartet of Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney, Naas’ Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. Cian Healy was also ruled out through suspension, but with 16 full Irish internationals in the matchday squad, the visitors certainly weren’t lacking in experience for this game.
The Kill duo Adam Byrne and James Tracy were not included for this crunch tie, but Suncroft man Fergus McFadden did join Athy youngster Joey Carbery and club captain Isa Nacewa in the back-three.
Leinster were seeking a first top-tier European final spot since 2012, but with Morgan Parra adding five points in addition to the scores from Yato and Strettle, Clermont created significant daylight between themselves and their PRO12 counterparts in the first-quarter.
This left them with a mountain to climb, and it wasn’t until first-half stoppage-time that Leinster opened their account, when Sexton registered a much-needed penalty. This cut the gap to 12 points (15-3) at the interval, and three consecutive place-kicks by the out-half substantially decreased Clermont’s stranglehold on the contest.
Another Parra penalty, and a drop-goal by the sublime Camille Lopez, restored order for Clermont – until Ringrose’s intervention set-up a compelling finale. Sexton’s subsequent bonus kick left just two between the sides, but six points from player of the match Lopez (including a second drop-goal) reinforced the home team’s superiority.
Another Sexton three-pointer offered Leinster hope in the closing stages, but Clermont held firm to advance to a final date with Saracens – who defeated Munster on a scoreline of 26-10 at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.