Leinster 21 - 28: Holders loosen grip

Hines means business: Former Scotland lock Nathan Hines puts the Leinster defence on the back foot. Photograph: Getty Images
Hines means business: Former Scotland lock Nathan Hines puts the Leinster defence on the back foot. Photograph: Getty Images
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If LEINSTER are to defend their Heineken Cup crown, they will have to do it the hard way after suffering a shock loss to Clermont at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium yesterday afternoon.

One week ago Ireland’s eastern province were proud of a 17-match unbeaten run in Europe but twin losses to “Les Jaunards” from the Massif Central means they are struggling just to qualify for the knockout stage.

Mike Schmidt’s side started the day five points behind the French and finished it with the gap standing at eight. Leinster’s hopes of qualification now likely rest upon grabbing one of the best two second place finishes, while Clermont will be installed as favourites to pick up their first-ever Heineken Cup. At least a late try a minute from time by winger Fergus McFadden salvaged a bonus point for the champions, which may be crucial when the final figures are totted up after another two rounds early in the new year.

Leinster have been finding tries hard to come by in this campaign, with just one scored in their three European matches ahead of yesterday’s encounter. It was a little ironic that they rediscovered their try-scoring form on the same day they lost at home for the first time all season.

The home team outscored Clermont by two tries to one so the difference was down to seven penalties from the boot of Morgan Parra, pictured. The scrum-half missed just one kick all day and even that hit the post but, in truth, the outcome was rarely in doubt with the visitors controlling both the match and the scoreboard.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are struggling to make their mark in this competition but at least one (Australian) Scot still has an interest in the Heineken Cup. Clermont lock Nathan Hines is playing as well as he ever did and, on this evidence, he might yet force himself into the Lions’ squad next summer. The big man nicked one crucial lineout, belied his 36 years by running around like a spring chicken and insisted he’d scored a first-half try – not that the officials were listening.

Despite pushing Clermont all the way in France last weekend, Leinster never truly troubled the French team in Dublin. A combination of kickers, Brock James from hand and Parra off the tee, allied to the undoubted power of the Clermont pack ensured that the visitors were never headed all afternoon.

The key moment in the match came towards the end of the first half with Clermont already leading by 9-6 after a spate of penalties to both teams. The Clermont wingers combined beautifully on the left flank to give Napolioni Nalanga a charge at the try line. The giant winger was pulled down just short but no one was going to stop Wesley Fofana from short range when the ball was recycled. Parra stepped up and nonchalantly knocked over the tricky conversion to give his side a 16-6 lead at the break.

Leinster briefly threatened a stirring fightback at the start of the second forty. Sexton kicked one penalty and, had he converted a second kick, the gap would have been a far more manageable seven points. Instead Sean O’Brien tackled Sitiveni Sivivatu off the ball and was shown a yellow card. Parra knocked over his fifth penalty, having already added a fourth earlier in the half.

The home pack was already struggling to contain the visitors’ power even with a full compliment of players and they were ground down even further by a series of set scrums deep inside their own territory. With McFadden filling in on the flank, Irish prop Mike Ross was under huge pressure and conceding penalties at almost every scrum. He eventually gave way to Michael Bent but not before Parra had extended Clermont’s lead to 25-9.

Nalanga thought he had scored Clermont’s second try with a pick and drive from short range. He probably did but the match officials were all unsighted.

Instead two tries came at the other end of the field. The first occurred when Shane Jennings was bundled over the line from an attacking lineout.

The second came with the last move of the match after Johnny Sexton made the initial break and McFadden finished in the corner with less than a minute left on the clock.

That late strike gave both a bonus point and a glimmer of hope to the home team.

Scorers: Leinster: Tries: O’Brien, McFadden. Cons: Sexton. Pens: Sexton 3. Clermont: Try: Fofana. Con: Parra. Pens: Parra 7.

Leinster: Madigan; McFadden, D’Arcy, Goodman, Nacewa (Kearney 58); Sexton, Reddan (Boss 65); van der Merwe (Healy 46), Strauss, Ross (Bent 61), Cullen (c), Browne (Toner 40); O’Brien, Jennings (McLaughlin 66), Heaslip.

Clermont: Byrne (King 36); Sivivatu, Rougerie, Fofana,
Nalaga, James, Parra; Chaume, Kayser (Paulo 69), Zirakashvili (Kotze 69); Cudmore, Hines (Jacquet 74); Bonnaire (Lapandry 66), Bardy, Chouly.

Referee: W Barnes (Eng). Attendance: 48,964.