A fabulous final of the European Champions Cup lies in store between Clermont’s ‘yellow army’ and the self-styled ‘wolf pack’ of Saracens at Murrayfield in Edinburgh on 13 May.
Leinster’s three-time European champions stuck at their semi-final task with admirable resolve in Lyon on Sunday after being blasted by a 15-point Clermont blitz in the opening 15 minutes.
But the French club’s international fly-half Camille Lopez closed the door on a thrilling comeback with two superb dropped goals in the final quarter, as Clermont reached their third final in five seasons.
Any chance Leinster had of easing into their ninth semi-final in this competition overall was ruined when Clermont grabbed the first try in the fourth minute.
Nick Abendanon launched his fellow former England back David Strettle into an attack up the right, and after a few more phases recycling, Strettle chipped deftly over the Leinster cover for Fiji flanker Peceli Yato to dot down. Morgan Parra converted for 7-0 to send the yellow flags flying in the Stade de Gerland.
Leinster’s most recent European semi-final victory was over Clermont five years ago on the way to the third of the Irish province’s three titles, whereas the Massif Central side, in an infamous litany of near misses, have yet to win one.
Clermont will now have to find their way past Saracens’ famed defence if they are to write a different story, but they dominated Leinster comfortably for almost all of the first half, ransacking the visitors’ line-out.
Leinster had four of their five British and Irish Lions squad members on show, but Sean O’Brien had joined Jamie Heaslip and Jordi Murphy in a trio of absent back-rowers; not an area to be weak in against a Clermont pack who love driving hard up the middle.
A yellow card to Leinster’s captain Isa Nacewa for an off-the-ball tug of Strettle’s jersey gave Parra a penalty for 10-0 with eight minutes gone, and the sin-binning created space on the Irish side’s left wing that was exploited by the hotstepping Strettle – once of Harlequins and Saracens – to jink past Dan Leavy and Joey Carbery for Clermont’s second try five minutes later.
That try came from an overthrow by Richardt Strauss snaffled by his opposite number Benjamin Kayser.
It took some brilliant handling just for Leinster to get anywhere near the Clermont 22 before the interval, as they earned a penalty kicked by Johnny Sexton two minutes into added time and made a welcome dent in the nominal home team’s lead: 15-3.
Leinster retained that momentum in the second half, as Sexton chipped three more penalties over for 15-12, including one against Damien Chouly for dawdling behind a ruck.
Then came two pivotal incidents late in the third quarter.
Leinster thought they had a try to take the lead when from an unpromising ruck in their half, Fergus McFadden shot through a gap and Sexton and Robbie Henshaw followed up to send the supporting flanker Leavy over the line.
But the television match official Jonathan Mason spotted the initial gap had been created by Leavy holding the leg of Clermont’s 36-year-old centre Aurelien Rougerie, and Parra’s successful penalty put Clermont 18-12 up, quickly followed by a penalty against Nacewa for colliding with Strettle in mid-air.
A couple of protracted scrums ensued to help take even more of the wind out of Leinster’s sails, and Lopez coolly reprised his timely dropped goal from the closing stages of the quarter-final win over Toulon to nudge Clermont into a nine-point lead with 16 minutes remaining.
Those of us who had advocated Garry Ringrose for a Lions Test place, never mind the place on the tour he was denied in last Wednesday’s squad announcement, felt a measure of vindication as the centre executed a fantastic step, surge and sprint for a solo try from 60 metres out in the 68th minute, converted by Sexton: 21-19.
But when Ringrose attempted another counter from deep he was scragged and Leinster dived over the top to give Lopez – with Parra off the field – a penalty shot at goal he was never going to miss.
Scott Spedding fired a long-range penalty wide for Clermont, before Leinster coughed possession up trying a risky short drop-out and with a smooth swing of his left boot, Lopez dropped another goal from 40 metres for 27-19.
Still Leinster kept coming, and Sexton’s fifth penalty gave them about 60 seconds of play to find a try.
A brilliant chase and catch of Lopez’s restart by Rougerie’s replacement Damien Penaud put paid to that and earned one of the loudest roars of the afternoon.
Strettle, who will now look forward to a showdown with one of his former clubs, said: “Full credit to Leinster, that was a tough game, we knew they would never give up.
“It was a case of hanging on for the 10 or 15 minutes they were in control, then pull away at the end.
“It’s going to take a hell of an effort to beat Saracens; I think they’ve got better since I left.
“Typically in French rugby they like to play all the time but Saracens show sometimes it’s best to let the opposition have the ball. I think in Camille [Lopez], we have a player who can control the game like that and he is doing it brilliantly.”
Sexton said: “You can’t give a 15-point start in a semi-final and we have to take our hats off to Clermont and say we weren’t good enough.”
Clermont Auvergne: Tries: Yato, Strettle. Conversions: Parra. Penalties: Parra 2, Lopez. Drops: Lopez 2.
Leinster: Try: Ringrose. Conversion: Sexton. Penalties: Sexton 5.
Clermont Auvergne: S Spedding; D Strettle, A Rougerie (rep D Penaud 57th min), R Lamerat (P Fernandez 66), N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra (L Radosavljevic 70); R Chaume (E Falgoux 65), B Kayser (J Ulugia 54), D Zirakashvili (A Jarvis 65), A Iturria, S Vahaamahina (P Jedrasiak 70), D Chouly (capt), P Yato (A Lapandry 54), F Lee.
Leinster: J Carbery; F McFadden (Z Kirchner 72) G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 65); J McGrath (P Dooley 61), R Strauss (S Cronin 49), T Furlong (M Bent 72), D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 61), R Ruddock, D Leavy (J van der Flier 65), J Conan.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).