Clermont Auvergne 15-19 Leinster, Heineken Cup semi-final
Greatness beckons heroic Leinster
April 29, 2012
Veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll was at the heart of his side's thrilling victory over Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux © Getty Images
Leinster stand on the brink of greatness after a heroic performance that underlined their class and kept their hopes of a third Heineken Cup crown in four seasons alive.
A game featuring two of European rugby's heavyweights and an obscene amount of talent was billed as 'the most exciting match of the season' and not one of the 33,000 fans lucky enough to have witnessed the contest at the cauldron-like Stade Chaban Delmas will have cause to demand a refund.
The Heineken Cup simply does not do 'ordinary' and neither do Leinster. Joe Schmidt's side may not have been at their best, with their scrum and lineout failing to fire under intense pressure, but it takes more than that to unsettle this crop of special players who are now within one game of eclipsing Munster as Irish rugby's most successful side in the competition. But both sides played their part in a game packed with drama, tension, skill and controversy.
Leinster rode their luck with the odd stray boot and side entry testing the patience of Clermont and referee Wayne Barnes but it was the English referee's leniency that will be questioned in the bars of Bordeaux this evening and not the Irish side's tactics. Somehow Leinster skipper Leo Cullen avoided a yellow card for striking Clermont prop Lionel Faure in a crucial first half dust-up with the Frenchman's theatrics on his way to the turf perhaps saving the second row rather than sealing his fate. Question marks will also be raised about Leinster's Teflon-like ability to avoid a yellow card as Clermont's gutsy late onslaught drew a succession of penalties.
But that is not to detract from Leinster's superb second half effort that saw them rip the game from Clermont's grasp before mounting a resolute rearguard effort that denied a side that only an hour earlier had been bullying them like no side has managed to do in recent memory.
Cruel injuries to key attacking threats such as Julien Malzieu and Lee Byrne would have served as a fatal blow to any other side's quest for honours but blessed with an abundance of big names, Clermont took it in their stride and dominated their rivals for much of the first half but crucially they could not cross the whitewash.
However, it was strategically questionable replacements that arguably knocked them out of their stride in the second half with the withdrawal of the likes of Nathan Hines, a near-constant thorn in the side of his former employers, in particular a real head-scratcher. But while the faces were different, the result was the same as the Leinster defensive line creaked but never gave way.
The one exception was Wesley Fofana's 'score' that sparked a painfully premature celebration on the field and in the largely-yellow stands. The usually ruthless centre, who made a name for himself in this year's Six Nations, lost control of the ball at the worst possible time. There was still time for a brutal battering of the Leinster line but you sensed that Clermont's hopes slipped from their grasp along with that ball. Those are the fine margins that make top-class sport so enthralling.
It should surprise no-one that veteran Brian O'Driscoll was at the heart of a game-defining defensive effort with midfield partner Gordon D'Arcy also at his best. Fullback Rob Kearney may have claimed the man of the match award, thanks to a stand-out showing including a seven-minute master class punctuated by an outrageously good drop goal, but he has some way to go to match O'Driscoll's consistency - especially in this competition.
ERC Rugby chiefs should do themselves a favour and make sure that when the legendary centre retires they celebrate his contribution to this tournament by renaming the man of the match honour in the final in his honour. They owe him that. We all owe him that. But O'Driscoll will be the first to point to the rest of his side as the reason for their ongoing success and it is hard to argue when reviewing that gutsy last stand.
The result is the first-all Irish final that is also good news for Connacht who will return to the competition next season as a result. But Irish rugby still has plenty to look forward this term with a corner of south west London set to play host to a major party next month.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.