Eight missed kicks cost Clermont a place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals on Friday in a 29-28 defeat to defending champions Leinster.
Eight missed kicks from Brock James and Morgan Parra between them ended up costing Clermont a place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals on Friday in a 29-28 defeat to defending champions Leinster.
The French side had the better of nearly all the stats, not least the penalties for and against column, but some kicks went short, others right, others left. In the end, six out of eleven place-kicks and two missed late drop goals, 23 points altogether, were absolutely the difference between the two teams. Leinster dug in, Jonny Sexton landed his goals, that was that.
It was decided by the boot, but a pulsating quarter-final was played with anything but. Two tryscorers shared five tries between them, the lead changed hands four times and varied in margin from ten points to the final one. Each time you thought the game was up, something would happen and it would be wide open again. It was classic Heineken rugby.
Clermont now have to pick themselves up once more, an act that is becoming increasingly common in the Auvergne for both this team and its long-suffering fans, who made the RDS rock at times with the support. Three Top 14 finals in a row – numbers nine, ten and eleven in the club's history – have gone by the wayside in the past three seasons. This season's Heineken Cup displays had been enough to suggest that the side was mounting a more serious challenge than usual in Europe, but once again, nerves appeared to desert or afflict at the crucial moments.
They are sitting pretty in the Top 14 again – it's unlikely they will not qualify automatically for a semi-final – but as the players trooped off at the end you got a vague sense that this match could have been the turning point in their season. After a while, defeat – choking, if you want to be unkind – becomes a habit just as much as winning.
Meanwhile, Leinster continue to ride a tsunami wave of Irish luck this season, backed up by the usual healthy stock of Irish pluck and grit and the ingrained clinicality of champions. In a first half where they had to cope with a deficit of roughly 60-40 in terms of both possession and territory, it ought to have been inconceivable that they should go into the dressing rooms 20-10 to the good.
But each raid into the Clermont 22 produced some form of score, including one scintillating try by Jamie Heaslip, while in the second half it was left to Jonny Sexton to kick the goals eked out by the team's graft and keep the Leinstermen's dream alive.
Clermont dominated the opening exchanges and powered ahead in the 12th minute through Malzieu.
A chip ahead from James did the initial damage, with Gonzalo Canale gathering before finding Aurelien Rougerie marauding off his wing and he sent Malzieu over for an easy finish.
The conversion was landed by James, who quickly added a penalty, as Clermont continued to create openings almost at will.
Leinster were creaking as they repeatedly fell foul of referee Dave Pearson's whistle and it took them until the 19th minute to escape their own half.
Having finally cast off the shackles, they hauled themselves level with a Sexton penalty beginning the fightback.
Better was to come in the 23rd minute when a piece of magic from Brian O'Driscoll saw the Ireland captain draw Marius Joubert before deceiving Rougerie with a crafty offload to Heaslip.
Heaslip had support but opted to go it alone by stepping inside back row Julien Bonnaire and crashing over with Sexton converting.
James missed two further penalties and the balance of power shifted when Heaslip crashed over for his second try in the 34th minute.
The Ireland number eight won possession at the lineout and then picked up after a drive from fellow back row Kevin McLaughlin to barge over under the posts.
Sexton converted and then added a penalty to put Leinster 20-10 ahead going into the break, with Morgan Parra squandering a chance to reduce the deficit after Clermont had changed kickers.
Malzieu skinned Shane Horgan to add his second try three minutes into the second half as Clermont clinically worked an overlap created by tieing up Leinster's pack.
James missed the conversion but slotted a penalty, leaving a fast-paced match balanced on a knife edge.
Shane Jennings and McLaughlin accumulated hard yards to set up a good field position finished by three points from Sexton.
The tension grew with James finally hitting the target and then Clermont surged ahead, capitalising on two errors from Horgan to send Malzieu over for his third.
First the former Ireland winger failed to gather a long kick and then he saw his clearance charged down by Joubert, who fed Malzieu and the Frenchman danced over.
James hit the conversion but Clermont's hearts were in their mouths as tournament match official Geoff Warren poured over replays of Eoin Reddan attempting to ground the ball over the whitewash, eventually opting against awarding the score.
Sexton kicked another penalty and Leinster's prospects improved when Anthony Floch was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on as Horgan sought to send Gordon D'Arcy free.
James missed an easy drop goal after Clermont had done all the hard work and Sexton fired his fifth penalty to give his side the lead before the match finished with James' final late attempt to seize victory.
Man of the match: It doesn't often go to a player on the losing side, but a hat-trick is difficult to ignore. None of them were partcularly easy finishes and Julien Malzieu was a constant threat when the ball came his way. Honourable mentions also go to Aurelien Rougerie, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip.
Tries: Heaslip 2
Cons: Sexton 2
Pens: Sexton 5
Tries: Malzieu 3
Cons: James 2
Pens: James 3
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Shane Horgan, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Leo Cullen (capt), 3 CJ van der Linde, 2 John Fogarty, 1 Stan Wright.
Replacements: 16 Bernard Jackman, 17 Mike Ross, 18 Cian Healy, 19 Malcolm O'Kelly, 20 Stephen Keogh, 21 Paul O'Donohoe, 22 Shaun Berne, 23 Girvan Dempsey.
Clermont Auvergne: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 Aurelien Rougerie (c), 13 Marius Joubert, 12 Gonzalo Canale, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Elvis Vermeulen, 7 Alex Lapandry, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Thibault Privat, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Mario Ledesma, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Benoit Cabello, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Cedric Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Alexandre Audebert, 21 Kevin Senio, 22 Gavin Williams, 23 Wesley Fofana.
Referee: David Pearson (England)