Clermont Auvergne have a well-deserved reputation for rarely missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity: on 10 occasions between 1936 and 2009 they lost in the final of the French Championship, generally by a single-figure margin, and some of their failures in Europe have been masterpieces of misplaced generosity towards the opposition. Yesterday, in Bordeaux, they were at their most extravagant in handing out free gifts and presented the title-holders Leinster with their pass to an all-Irish final with Ulster at Twickenham.
None of which is to suggest that the Dubliners did not contribute magnificently to a mesmerising contest: indeed, their performance in the third quarter bore many of the hallmarks of greatness. But not even a teak-tough, ultra-competitive spirit like the centre Brian O'Driscoll would have the brass neck to suggest that the game was not Clermont's for the taking in the concluding, utterly captivating moments.
Having overturned a six-point interval deficit with a fine open-field try from prop Cian Healy, a great hairy mammoth of a drop goal from the full-back Rob Kearney and a third penalty from the angular outside-half Jonathan Sexton, the champions seemed to have wrapped things up. Clermont, the better side in the first half by many a long mile, looked bemused, bothered and bewildered – partly at the ability of an abrasive Leinster back-row trio to get away with blue murder on the floor and partly at the refereeing of the English official Wayne Barnes, who repeatedly drove the overwhelming majority of a capacity 32,000 crowd to distraction with his interpretation of the so-called laws pertaining to the so-called ruck.
Yet as the clock ticked down to the last 90 seconds, the Frenchmen found themselves in a decent attacking position, and they capitalised by sending Wesley Fofana, the brilliant young centre, over the line for what looked for all the world like the winning try. There was no immediate reason to think he had not grounded the ball: the tackle of Gordon D'Arcy, had barely been a tackle at all. Yet Barnes went "upstairs" to the television match official, who decided the awkwardly-positioned Fofana had fumbled the touchdown.
Still Leinster were not out of the mire: the heavyweight tight forwards in the Clermont front row set about them at two ensuing scrums, bagged themselves a couple of penalties and twice laid siege to the line, sending the prop Daniel Kotze, apparently constructed by the firm responsible for the Massif Central,stampeding towards the white stuff. Somehow the Irishmen denied him the last crucial millimetres, and with Leo Cullen and the outstanding Jamie Heaslip most prominent on the barricades, they forced a penalty of their own to end the game.
Bordeaux was resplendent in the yellow and blue of the Auvergne, and deafeningly alive with renditions of the region's sporting songs: when Tricolore contenders reach the late knock-out stage of this tournament and are favoured with a tie on French soil, their supporters invariably generate an atmosphere infinitely more electrifying than any low charge that might crackle harmlessly through the top level of the English club game, even when the destination of the Premiership title is at stake. But this grand city – grand vin city, to be strictly accurate – has not always been a friend to its own. Bath beat Brive in this stadium to win the 1998 Heineken Cup and, two years later, Munster did a job on Toulouse.
What Munster once did, Leinster do now: they take their chances as and when they arise, irrespective of how frequently or rarely they occur, and "keep throwing themselves in front of the bus", as their coach, Joe Schmidt, put it afterwards. O'Driscoll has always been a tackler and a scrapper of genius, but when he is aided and abetted by the likes of Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Richardt Strauss, he can stop the biggest bus in the world dead in its tracks.
And just like the champion Munster teams before them, Leinster know how to stamp authority from the outset. Yesterday it was their Fijian wing Isa Nacewa who set them racing from the traps, twice causing havoc down the right and forcing a Clermont back division of all the talents into some immediate indiscretions. If the Frenchmen were unfortunate to lose two of their back three, Julien Malzieu and Lee Byrne, to early injuries, it was equally true to say that Leinster played the cleaner, more incisive rugby in the opening 15 minutes or so.
Once Clermont found their feet at the set-piece – more importantly, their strength, their fire and their fury – Leinster found themselves struggling for possession, and as a consequence, Brock James kicked four first-half penalties to Sexton's two. Nathan Hines, the Australian-Scottish lock, and Davit Zirakashvili, the Georgian prop, made the Irish province suffer at close quarters and with the All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu oozing aggressive intent, the "home" side might have expected a better return for their first-half supremacy. Certainly, Leinster were happy to settle for the scoreline.
So happy indeed that Sexton spoke optimistically to his colleagues at half-time and called the move that broke the game open. Almost from the kick-off, Strauss found Kearney with the most beautifully weighted of inside passes, thereby creating the hole that would eventually be exploited by the supporting Healy. "Jonny said: 'Let's do it straight away, because if we get it right, we'll score'," Schmidt reported. Jonny turned out to be absolutely bang on the money.
All the money in the world will be behind Leinster when they meet their friends from the north in London on 19 May, for Clermont were probably the only side with a decent chance of upsetting the Dubliners' bid to become the first team to retain this title since Leicester managed the feat a decade ago. If a player as good as Fofana cannot score from the rugby equivalent of an open goal, it must be their year.
Clermont Auvergne: Penalties: James 5.
Leinster: Try: Healy. Conversion Sexton. Penalties Sexton 3. Drop goal: Kearney.
Clermont Auvergne: Byrne (King 21); Sivivatu, Rougerie (capt), Fofana, Malzieu (Buttin 12); James, Parra; Faure (Debaty 47), Kayser (Paulo 63), Zirakashvili (Kotze 58), Cudmore, Hines (Pierre 56), Bonnaire, Lapandry, Vermeulen (Bardy 54).
Leinster: Kearney; Nacewa, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald (McFadden 63); Sexton, Boss (Reddan 52); Healy (Van der Merwe 55), Strauss (Cronin 63), Ross, Cullen (capt), Thorn, O'Brien, Jennings (McLaughlin 63), Heaslip.
Referee: W Barnes (England).
Ulster v Leinster Kick-off 19 May, 5pm, Twickenham (Sky Sports 3)
Have reached the final for the first time since 1999, which they won 21-6 over French side Colomiers.
The holders have won the competition in two of the last three seasons.