Saracens and Clermont march on to the final as Irish hopes are dashed
By Phil Rice
“We were one step away from the final and we had it snatched away from us,” the words of a bitterly disappointed Johnny Sexton after Clermont narrowly beat Leinster 27-22.
Sexton had never lost a European semifinal before and the disappointment was etched on his face.
“We have a young side that will come again, only one or two old guys like Isa and myself are left to guide these great young players who will come back and achieve.
“They must realise that they can’t just assume that they will succeed sometime in the future they must seize the opportunities when they come along, like today.”
Sexton was as articulate as ever just after the final whistle. Clermont got off to an impressive start and were 15 points up in as many minutes but Leinster rallied and at one stage during the second half were favourites to make the final.
The turning point in the game came when Leinster thought they had scored a magnificent try only to have it disallowed as play was brought all the way back to their 22 for an penalty infringement, ironically conceded by the try scorer, Dan Leavy.
Leinster have improved enormously during this season and there is more to come from this emerging side. Players like Leavy, Ringrose, Henshaw, Furlong, and Jack and Luke McGrath will get better and they can look forward to performing at the latter stages of the Champions Cup again in the coming years.
Leo Cullen referred to the defeat as, “The one that got away,” and bemoaned,” It’s a bitter pill to take.”
But they need to refocus quickly as both Leinster and Munster still have the Pro12 League to battle for. Cullen commented, “We have a game in five days. “As a squad we have to take great learnings out of today and prepare for the coming weeks. There are still more trophies for us to chase.”
Munster started in impressive style and matched Saracens up to half-time but thereafter the North Londoners took control. Their Lions forwards the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and George Kruis squeezed the life out of the Munster pack.
Conor Murray was badly missed and when the influential Peter O’Mahony left the field midway through the second half with a head injury, they never really looked like challenging the Cup holders.
The Munster faithful had descended on Lansdowne Road, over 45,000 encouraged their heroes and with the score at 6-3 to Saracens at half time there was real belief that Munster could make it to the final. But despite winning their fair share of possession in the second-half, their half-backs Duncan Williams and Tyler Bleyendaal never exerted the control over proceedings that was needed.
Owen Farrell was deadly accurate with his place kicking and he kicked the lifeblood out of this game Munster team.
In truth Saracens are a very impressive team and are strong favourites to retain their trophy.
Munster need to find the resourcefulness to contend for the Pro12 league. Their coach Rassie Erasmus has done a magnificent job in restoring self belief back to this team.
Like Leinster they have a number of emerging young players who will only improve. Interestingly 80% of Munster’s squad of 23 on Saturday are eligible to play for Ireland whereas only 50% of the Saracens squad are eligible for England.
Conor Murray is key to Munster’s future.
His inspiration and leadership is crucial to them going forwards from this point.
His injury is causing some concern to Warren Gatland, who last week said he would not bring Murray on the Lions tour if he didn’t play rugby before the party leave at the beginning of June. Munster will be hoping he is available for the Pro12 play-offs.
Despite the disappointment for the Irish provinces at the weekend, both teams have made huge strides this season.
Remember, no Irish team qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup last season. The pain of defeat is acute as Leo Cullen commented afterwards, “It was just the finest margin at the end of the day, it probably hurts more losing in a semi, one step short.”
There are reasons to be positive for both teams and their wonderful supporters have good cause to be optimistic looking to the future.