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Monday 1 September 2014

Loss came down to the finest of lines - Heaslip

SOMEONE'S 'O' had to go.

Clermont Auvergne ended Leinster's 17-match unbeaten streak in the Heineken Cup and extended their own home record to 51-0. But, this does not tell the story of a glorious 15-12 failure - if there is such a thing - by the Heineken Cup champions.

Clermont coach Vern Cotter certainly had the look of a relieved man about him: "Four points is what we wanted and what we needed. It was a good old boxing battle out there, an exchange of blows from the start to the end.

"It was a tense affair. It was a good battle. It was one of the most intense games that we have played here for a long, long time. I think it will do us a world of good," he said.

There was grace in victory from Leinster coach Joe Schmidt's former boss at Clermont: "They came here to win the game. We managed to wrestle that off them. We go over there with the pressure on their shoulders.

"Luckily, we sneaked away with a three-point advantage. We're happy with the win, not particularly happy with the way we played in the second-half. I don't think we held onto the ball long enough. They kept coming at us. They are a great team."

Clermont now move on to a return of played five, won two against Leinster. It is apparent that they have suffered from a lack of belief in the past, despite their powerful squad of players.

"Hopefully, our confidence levels will lift and we will be able to go to The Aviva and not get treated to the same 24 points we got treated to two years ago," he added.

It could all have been so different for Leinster. They deserved a draw, at least. They had to settle for a bonus-point in defeat in a match they grew into and came to dominate territorially.

It didn't look too good at the start. Tight-head Mike Ross was penalised at a scrum for Morgan Parra to slip three points through the posts in the fourth minute.

The Clermont brains trust was called into question when Leinster split them with the exact same move that triggered Cian Healy's decisive try in last year's semi-final.

From there, Ian Madigan fed Jonathan Sexton only for Leinster to be cynically denied a try-scoring chance by Napolioni Nalaga.

The Fijian should have been shown a yellow card. Instead, Sexton had to settle for three points. Leinster were beginning to move smoothly.

Sexton's grubber forced a Clermont defensive lineout where Julien Bonnaire took a textbook fetch only for prop Davit Zirakashvili to obstruct from in front of him. Sexton pulled the penalty left and wide.

The problem was that when the Clermont wheels began to find traction Sean O'Brien was pinged for going off his feet in the process of poaching the ball. Parra succeeded where Sexton had failed to make it 6-3 in the 19th minute.

'Les Jaunards' were soon rampaging down the left and across to the right, where full-back Lee Byrne cut through until felled. O'Brien was harshly signalled for coming in at the side when Clermont did not protect the ruck area. Parra clipped it over for 9-3.

Leinster cleverly constructed a maul in midfield that tricked the home side into pulling it down unaware that it had already been formed. Sexton tagged on three.

They were utterly methodical in the way they backed Clermont down into their own 22 with an effective variety based on mistake-free basics. Eventually, Clermont's frustration kicked in and Sexton kicked Leinster level.

It didn't last long. Brock James' restart was taken by Isa Nacewa, who was, in turn, taken by Sitiveni Sivivatu. The home forwards followed him. A cheap penalty was coughed up for Parra.

Then, Sexton could not control an up-and-under. Clermont seized in the spill. James broke a few tackles in a tight space to put Clermont on the front-foot. The ball came back for James to boot a drop goal for a 15-9 lead at the interval.

The Leinster forwards must have been irritated when they won a very kickable penalty only for Sexton to go for a long-odds cross-field kick to Fergus McFadden. It didn't come off.

The Leinster front-row turned on the power at the scrum where Ross was a rolling rock, pressurising Vincent Debaty into standing up and walking him backwards for Sexton to rocket over a penalty to make it 15-12 in the 53rd minute.

There were 27 minutes left to turn it around. It was all to play for. The next score would be crucial. It never came as Leinster were thwarted by losing two attacking lineouts when a miracle looked more and more likely.

"We had a couple of opportunities, both in the first and second-half to get some points. But, we weren't accurate," said number eight Jamie Heaslip.

"Those kind of inaccuracies led to them getting into the game with the penalties that they got. With the quality kickers that they have, they just kept taking those chances.

"Maybe, it was one that we let slip away a little bit. There was the odd knock-on and delivery from set-piece, the accuracy around our launching pad, especially from the lineout and scrum.

"It is like an Inter-provincial rivalry at this stage for us. It was a tough gig. We are quite proud. The track out there kind of saps the energy from your legs. It was literally a bit of a slugfest at times.

"A game like that takes a lot out of you. It is all about recovery now. We've done a lot of work preparing for this game. We've just got to focus on the task at hand which is them in The Aviva," said Heaslip.

The return leg will be a must-see. You can almost hear the 'ching-ching' sound of the cash register turning over at the Leinster box office.

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