European Club Rugby Quarter Finals

Live Blog: Challenge Cup: Clermont  53 Ulster 14 F/T.


Ulster’s form has been patchy this season, resulting in their Head Coach and Chief Executive being shown the door. Key players are set to leave at the end of the season, so it’s now or never if Ulster are to have any chance of winning a trophy any time soon. A difficult mini-tour to South Africa was a baptism of fire for new interim head coach, Richie Murphy, but there were signs Ulster were starting to get their act together in the round of 16 match against Montpellier, albeit with Montpellier down to 12 men at one stage due to a red card for Willemse – repeating his offence against Ireland  – and two yellows.

Ulster started this match in a determined mood, physical in attack and defence, and an early try by Timoney was just what they needed and deserved. Unfortunately Clermont were able to return the favour on their first serious foray into Ulster territory, Yato making it look easy. 7-7. Ulster were finding it difficult to win the collisions and break the defensive line, and again Clermont came away with 3 points on their next incursion into Ulster territory.

Doak has started well in his new role as a 10, but giving little Mikey Lowry high balls to contest against massed defenders seems a low percentage strategy. But nothing seems to work for Ulster – neither deft handling across the backline nor box kicks – Another soft penalty, and its 13-7. This match could run away from Ulster unless they find a way past a well organised and physical defence. Another attack by Clermont yields a 7 pointer off first phase.  It’s beginning to look like men against boys – Clermont have scored every time they have attacked Ulster. 20-7.

Another strong shift by the forwards off a maul and Timoney bags his second despite the attentions of three defenders. An excellent touchline conversion by Cooney makes it 20-14. And not a moment too soon.  Ulster are still in this match, but only just. A good start to the second half will be essential. On the plus side,  Ulster’s set piece has been solid, but lot more penetration will be required from the backs and better close in forward defence against some very effective Clermont ball carriers.

Ulster concede a breakdown penalty early but Anthony Belleau misses. But then Clermont score another facile try almost directly from the restart. Ulster’s defence has been shocking. A  simple blindside move their undoing on this occasion. 27-14.

Kitshoff concedes a scrum penalty and Ulster overthrow a second line-out – it is beginning to look as if the wheels are coming off. In fairness Kitshoff has been prominent in the loose and has been one of Ulster’s best ball carriers. Unfortunately Ulster are still being knocked back in the  collisions and are then destroyed by a Clermont maul. It’s very difficult to see a way back for Ulster at this stage. 34-14.

Clermont steal an Ulster line-out and then score off second phase. It’s all too easy for them. Clermont destroy Ulster’s scrum but don’t need the penalty and score off second phase again. Ulster can’t handle their power. , They say defence is less about skill and more about attitude. Richie Murphy has a huge task ahead of him. 48-14.

Clermont stop a couple of close-in Ulster mauls, snaffle an Ulster line-out, and win a scrum penalty. It’s become an amble in the sunshine for them and the large crowd.  Just to rub it in, they score another simple blind-side try 53-14. F/T.

This has been a sobering lesson for Ulster. They are simply not physical enough to handle the top club sides and losing Kitshoff next season will exacerbate matters.  It is difficult to see any aspect of their game which gained parity with Clermont and few players enhanced their reputations. At a stretch Doak could be an option for Ireland with a 6:2 bench split as he can cover 9 and 10 and Nick Timoney must have a chance of grabbing a backrow spot for the tour to South Africa.



This is a  must win match for Leinster, otherwise their season will again be deemed a failure. Keenan is a late withdrawal, but they have a  50,000 plus capacity home crowd, a sunny day, and a fine pitch to show off their wares. Their first lineout is lost to Ultan Dillane. Frawley then wins a critical penalty – but we go back for a Gibson Park forward pass. The first scrum is rock solid. Leinster win a penalty for off-side. Ross Byrne goes for a long range penalty in the swirling breeze and nails it. 3-0.

Kerr Barlow milks a penalty by running into an off-side Jenkins. McCarthy steals the ball from a La Rochelle maul. Leinster are making some statement hits and Larmour wins the turnover. Leinster are mad for it and match La Rochelle physically at every turn until James Lowe scores the try. 10-0.

Hastoy scores a penalty and Will Connors fails to give the scoring pass and Lowe is held up. Then Alldritt gets under the grounding by Gibson Park – two try scoring opportunities lost. Leinster are on top, but need to get on the score board more. A high tackle on Frawley leads to another long distance Ross Byrne penalty. 10-3.

Another soft penalty allows Hastoy to make it 13-6, but Ross Byrne converts another long range penalty to make it 16 – 6.  Referee Dickson is very sharp on any breakdown offenses. A Lowe long range effort goes dead but the ref calls it back for knock-on advantage. Leinster create a try out of nothing for Gibson Park with a great disguised late off-load by Lowe.  Ross Byrne again nails the touchline conversion. 23-6.

La Rochelle win multiple penalties in added time and score off a line out maul at the tail of the line-out. Hastoy makes it 23-13 and La Rochelle will have the wind in the second half.  Leinster have been excellent but La Rochelle have maximised their scoring chances. This match is a long way from dead yet! H/T.

Furlong has been on fire. Frawley has been excellent at 15, and Ross Byrne is kicking every point on offer. Lowe and Gibson Park have been world class, but La Rochelle are good enough in every position to make this a dogfight all the way.  Can Leinster maintain this pace for the full 80? If they do, La Rochelle will surely tire after their exertions in Cape Town? So Far Keenan, Ringrose and Ryan haven’t been missed, but will the Leinster bench still be strong enough?

A Brilliant back-line move leads to Baird running through Hastoy and scoring a great try. 30-13. Kerr Barlow is injured in the tackle  and is carried off. It takes a long time for him to regain consciousness.  La Rochelle are down to their last back replacement but Botia has played centre as often as not. Strangely, he is substituted soon after.

There were only three scrums in the first half but Leinster win a penalty at the first one of the second. Osborne can rival Lowe for left footed kicks and gets a great touch.  Gibson Park wins a Jackal penalty and Leinster are not going to give this one up easy.

Leinster are piling on the pressure. La Rochelle are forced to concede penalties and Sheehan scores out wide. La Rochelle are out on their feet. 35-13. A great cross-field kick by Henshaw leads to another try by Lowe. Frawley takes over the kicking duties, but hits the post.. 40-13.

Ala’ alatoa gives away a couple of penalties and the game gets loose. Michael Milne concedes a scrum penalty as well for hinging. The front row subs will have to do better than this. Ahaia West is injured but La Rochelle have no subs left. Leinster destroy a La Rochelle maul and the game descends into handbags. La Rochelle have been eviscerated.

Any number of Leinster players could have gotten MOTM, but Ross Byrne gets the gong. I would have given it to Furlong who is finally back to his best after a long quiet period. Osborne and Frawley deputised very capably for Ringrose and Keenan, and Larmour has added a physical edge to his game. McCarthy is probably the main reason this Leinster pack can no longer be dominated by the big French packs, but every player contributed handsomely to an outstanding win.

Overall, a brilliant match – Leinster’s best performance in years. Croke Park beckons for the semi-final against Northampton. Can Leinster fill it to its 80,000 capacity? They did it once before, but that was against Munster, who brought a substantial fan base. On this form, Leinster should be able to pull in the crowds.


So what was the difference between the Ulster and Leinster performances? Ulster have beaten Leinster as recently as last January, so is the gap really that large? For me, Leinster simply wanted it more. It has been some time since they won a trophy and many of their younger players have yet to win one.  Fear of failure would have driven this Leinster team on, but have Ulster simply reconciled themselves to it? Richie Murphy needs to know.

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