Wraparound: Viva la resistance
13:30, 30 Apr 2012
In the centre of Clermont, there is a beautiful equestrian statue of Vercingétorix, the Celtic chief who so nearly foiled Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Vercingétorix sits imperiously on a horse and holding a sword, he’s ready for the charge.
It’s a powerful image, indeed an inspiring sight with an ASM Clermont Auvergne flag fixed to the sword
. It dominates the square, a quite irresistible and enduring image. A reminder of another time when the French almost upset a dominant force of Europe.
The flag will serve to remind Wesley Fofana of the worst day of his rugby career. An afternoon when he had his knife at Leinster’s throat but somehow his city was sacked; albeit several hours’ away in Bordeaux.
Fofana’s error brought to mind Wales’ and England’s tense finish at Twickenham during the 2012 Six Nations; a day when a touch judge made the impossibly-tight call that David Strettle had not grounded the ball.
Englishman Wayne Barnes made a lot of calls on Sunday that another referee wouldn’t have. That’s not to say that Barnes was not correct in what he did, but weaker men would have been swayed by the vociferous home support.
On a day when there was nothing between the teams, a yellow card could well have been crucial. As it happened, both sides conceded the same number of penalties (14) but the likes of Leo Cullen - and the weak slap he threw at Lionel Faure - were lucky not to be binned.
That’s the ifs and buts of candy and nuts, of course. The bald fact is an all-Irish Heineken Cup final, a by-product of which means Connacht will be dining at Europe’s top table again next season.
Economy of attack and bravery of defence got Leinster there. The European champions’ ability to turn over the home side when it mattered was key too, most obviously when they won a penalty to decide the game.
But too often during Clermont’s period of dominance - the second 20 minutes of the first half - did they knock on or get turned over in enemy territory. With a game decided by such fine margins, a turnover count of 14-10 probably cost the French.
Not that Leinster didn’t dirty their own togs too. Having started pretty well, the Irish gave Brock James a chance to level it after knocks-on at either side of the pitch; first through Gordon D’Arcy and then Isa Nacewa. As outstanding as he has been for the province, Sunday might not have been Nacewa’s very best outing - three times he gave James kickable penalties.
Thankfully one of those, in the 51st minute, was not converted. Between the two semi-finals, it was the first kick of the weekend to go awry. It also allowed Johnny Sexton miss from the 10-metre line with 10 minutes to go, insofar as the gap was still more than a single three-pointer.
But that missed Leinster chance was precisely what made the end of the game so painful to watch. The champions - with Sexton dictating the game - were pinning the home side in their own half until Jamie Heaslip’s side entry to the breakdown granted the home side an easy penalty. It put the boys in blue into the own half for the final four minutes.
Probably the stand-out statistic from the game is that Leinster missed just nine tackles in the game to Clermont’s 13, while completing 123 to 76. There was a lot of talk about Ulster’s massive tackle count against Munster at Thomond Park in the quarter-finals, this was equally as brave at the death.
The line-breaking quality of Rob Kearney put Cian Healy in for the only try of the game and the full-back’s quality - also shown when he put over a fantastic drop goal - will be one of the reasons to back Leinster to retain their title. As will their ability to turn games - not that their Heineken Cup final against Northampton Saints in 2011 didn’t already exhibit that.
Clermont probably have their best days yet to come in Europe. They finally broke their Top 14 final hoodoo in 2010 after 10 lost finals - and their team is such that they can make another impact in the Heineken Cup next season. It would have been nice to pick up a first European Cup in a centenary year but alas.
Losing David Skrela before the match won’t have helped them, nor losing the exceptional Julien Malzieu as it progressed. Still, Leinster are where they are despite not having arguably the game’s best ever centre - Brian O’Driscoll - for most of the campaign.
Leinster’s ability to protect their try line before half-time and ensure the deficit was surmountable was key. It built a platform for Kearney and Sexton to work from, to keep the Leinster flag flying.
With massive regret, you feel the AS Clermont Auvergne flag might now be lowered from Vercingétorix’s sword by some sorrowful soul in the small hours of Monday morning.
Foiled, but so nearly triumphant.
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