THE BEST TWO teams in Europe.
That’s how we have described these sides for the last few years.
Before today, they met five times since April 2010.
Before today, Leinster held the upper hand, playing their way to bête noire status for Clermont in the knock-out stages while only suffering defeats at the impregnable Stade Marcel Michelin.
Saturday afternoon at the Aviva was Clermont’s attempt to redress the balance. And their calculations proved flawless on their way to a 21-28 win.
The visitors instantly dispelled thoughts that a French side might not have the fire in the belly needed for a tough road trip. Every carry, every defensive hit was absolutely ferocious.
After the sides exchanged early penalties the uncomfortable truth became apparent for Leinster and they would end the day eight points adrift of the side in line automatic qualification.
Finishing as one of the best runners up is not impossible, but Joe Schmidt won’t be holding his breath.
“Miracles happen in sport, I guess.” The Kiwi said with the eyes of a man coming to terms with the fact that he will finally let go of the Heineken Cup.
“But Mathematical long-shots seldom come into being. One of the things I would say is this team has done incredibly well since I’ve been here and even beyond.”
This was not the team who won back-to-back Heineken Cups. That’s not an excuse on Leinster’s behalf, it’s a fact. Leinster are approaching the half way point of a season which has mercilessly chopped at their playing staff.
Rob Kearney was not even the biggest-name absentee, but he was arguably the most acutely felt. Ian Madigan, as game as he is to perform at fullback, is no natural and the majority of the 48, 964 fans in attendance will wake up wondering if the European player of the year could have cleared a kick rather than drop it into the arms of Brock James in the lead-up to the visitors’ only try from Wesley Fofana.
That score would give the visitors a 6 – 16 half time lead. And after the break that cushion allowed them to turn the game over to Morgan Parra - the incredibly gifted scrum-half just a month after his 24th birthday. His coach, Vern Cotter, succinctly summed him up in three words:
“Leader, director, coordinator.”
Although Leinster would rally with tries from Shane Jennings and a length-of-the-field run from Jonathan Sexton to feed Fergus McFadden, this game was not about one error making the difference.
Leinster, for the first time in many years in this tournament, were bullied. Every forward burst was met with a white wall. In 160 minutes of rugby this week they managed only two offloads. Clermont tonight completed 16 as they poured through the gaps.
“Probably last weekend to be honest.” Schmidt responded when asked where the encounter had been lost. “We surprised them, got in behind them a little bit. We actually got to put the pressure on them. Our scrum was superior last week.”
The only minor grumble Schmidt would proffer was Wayne Barnes’ handling of the scrum, but that too slipped into obscurity among the lamentations of a coach who had finally witnessed Clermont being as good as he knew they could be.
“I knew they’d come to play and they’d be better than they were last week – I think we out-thought them last week and they just out-muscled us this week.”
With 10 points claimed and 10 left to play for, Leinster can still challenge for a best runners-up spot, but they could end the weekend fifth in that regard. No wonder Schmidt is keen to put the calculators away until January.
“I’ve said it before; it’s one of the flaws and the beauties of the Heineken cup that you can have semi-finalists from last year slugging it out in the same pool. I knew when I saw the pool how tough Exeter and Scarlets were so to look anywhere beyond our next game is very tough to do and I think all calculations are off at the minute.”
The best two teams in Europe, but only one of them will be around at the business end of this season.