Heaslip turns the tide as Leinster squeeze home

Leinster 29 Clermont 28
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On the Richter Scale of rugby raucousness, last night's Heineken Cup quarter-final between Leinster, the reigning champions, and Clermont Auvergne, perhaps the most potent side in an increasingly heavy-duty French league, measured at least 20. Make that 30.

The home side, outgunned at the scrum and forced to ransack the last vestiges of their competitive spirit, prevailed on the back of two first-half tries from the brilliant Lions No 8 Jamie Heaslip, but it could not conceivably have been closer. Brock James missed two kickable drop-goal opportunities at the death, the second of them with the last kick of the evening.

From the opening seconds, the Frenchmen looked a million euros – whatever that might be worth these days. Their powerfully-built wings, Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu, were so scarily strong on the charge, their opponents were forced to gang-tackle them in such numbers that space automatically materialised elsewhere. With Morgan Parra pulling the strings at scrum-half, there was little Leinster could do to resist.

They did not help themselves by committing basic handling errors by the bucketload – Isa Nacewa, Nathan Hines and Heaslip made uncharacteristic faux pas in this regard – and when Rougerie moved infield to provide the key link in a move started by James' dinky little chip into the 22, Malzieu was on hand to complete the opening score. The home players complained bitterly about some blatant pushing but Dave Pearson, the referee, turned a deaf ear.

James, suffering a nasty bout of the yips with his goal-kicking, managed to extend his side's lead with a wickedly difficult penalty from a position tight to the right touchline, but Leinster were just beginning to find a foothold and, after Jonathan Sexton cut the arrears with a penalty of his own, Heaslip capitalised in full. Guilty of a deeply questionable challenge on a prone Mario Ledesma, he showed the best of himself by galloping over from Brian O'Driscoll's inspired run-and-flick routine down the left.

Eleven minutes later, he was at it again, barrelling over at the sticks from a close-range line-out. Sexton converted and added a second penalty as the balance of the contest turned abruptly towards the Irishmen. In hindsight, the interval was the last thing they needed. When the sides re-emerged, the force was with Clermont once again, and it resulted in an immediate second try for Malzieu, who took advantage of a series of mini-mauls by his forwards and a scoring pass from the one-time Springbok centre Marius Joubert. James, all over the place, missed the conversion, but he hit the spot with a penalty a couple of minutes later to reduce the deficit to two points.

It was the signal for a exhausting spell of cut and thrust. There were two penalties for Sexton, another for James and a third try for Malzieu, who finished brilliantly in the left corner after Shane Horgan had made a poor first of dealing with a long clearance from Anthony Floch and then had his own kick charged down by Joubert. Eoin Reddan went within a shaved millimetre of scoring from the base of a ruck on the Clermont line and Floch was sent to the cooler for a deliberate knock-on before Sexton recaptured the lead with his fifth successful three-pointer.

Scorers: Leinster: Tries Heaslip 2; Conversions Sexton 2; Penalties Sexton 5. Clermont Auvergne: Tries Malzieu 3; Conversions James 2; Penalties James 3.

Leinster: R Kearney (G Dempsey 86); S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright,. J Fogarty (B Jackman 80), C J Van der Linde (C Healy h-t), L Cullen (capt), N Hines, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Clermont Auvergne: A Floch; A Rougerie (capt), M Joubert, G Canale, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 76), M Ledesma (B Cabello 80), D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, T Privat (J Pierre 54), J Bonnaire, A Lapandry (A Audebert 54), E Vermeulen.

Referee: D Pearson (England).