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The jaw, the mettle and the choke? 10 years on from Leinster's dramatic win over Clermont

Brock James performance was plagued by inconsistency, but the ‘choke’ label doesn’t sit well..

WHEN YOU SEARCH back for Leinster’s 2010 Heineken Cup quarter-final against Clermont, and its climax you will be met by headlines full of aggressive rhetoric.

The fury of the dominant, spying weakness and bearing down like a seagull to an ice-cream. ‘Choke’ is the word that screams out from the YouTube clip, accompanied by a screengrab of Brock James. In the image, he is spent and bushy-haired and part of us wonders did he begin the match clean cut and freshly shaved.

Source: APSM/YouTube

The clamour at the workings of James’ throat was down to a crime all out-halves commit. The off day, the yips, a 50% return off the tee. Call it what you will, but watching back – and you should treat yourself to the full match above -  ‘choke’ feels like the wrong label.

2010 was not a classic year for Leinster, but with Jonathan Sexton hitting a familiar sure-footed stride and Joe Schmidt in the opposition coaching box, as reigning champions they became embroiled in an all-time classic of a quarter-final that played out a decade ago today.

michael-cheika-in-front-of-his-leinster-team Michael Cheika with his team pre-match. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The image of James’ ill-fated last-minute drop-goal sailing wide of the posts is the abiding memory and the passage of time undoubtedly wears that memory thin. Because just last summer this author blithely suggested Clermont’s out-half was absent from the crucial moments. Viewing this week we’re left wondering just how much of the perception around the Australian’s effort was down to the continued audible disquiet from Sky commentator Stuart Barnes.

Barnes provided everything you could want from a co-commentator that night as the match obeyed no laws of momentum laws before full-time came with the score 29-28. He marvelled at a young Sexton in his first season as an international and prophetically surmised aloud, ‘if he’s 50 metres out in the final minute, he’s got it in him’. He was decisive in his views, analytical yet human and it was the frustration of a 10 rumbling through when he spotted indecision in James when it came time to stand in the pocket to line up a drop-goal.

‘He’s calling for it,’ commentator Miles Harrison says as he senses a climax.

‘He’s not,’ laughed Barnes, sealing a memory for some of us that James had shirked his responsibility. But he stood up and attempted that drop-goal, missed, and presented for another minutes later to bring the match to an end.

Only the younger bodies attached to old names stopped us in our tracks rewatching now. It was a ferocious contest that in many facets would not look out of place in a more modern setting.

There is an immediate sense that pressure has been ratcheted up to crushing levels as, of all men, Isa Nacewa drops two balls in his own 22 in the space of a minute.

The ravenous work-rate from Clermont on defence certainly would not be out of place today, their tempo of their start is a veritable trademark of their glory years that passed without the European Cup and James Ryan would have been proud of the loop play Leo Cullen initiated with Sexton in the first half.

What is striking about the old footage is how Jamie Heaslip consistently pops up in wider channels and manages to sidestep or change pace to power through a gap. Leinster were 3-10 down when the number 8 crossed for his first. A back-handed Brian O’Driscoll pass invited him to dance over. He revelled in flinging the ball into the crowd after both of his scores that night. Showmanship which was soon lost from his playing style.

jamie-heaslip-celebrates-his-try Heaslip celebrates one of his two tries. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton took on the conversion and it briefly resembled James’ first miss of the night, veering left for a moment of doubt, but then clipped the post. Maybe they’re the breaks a 10 needs to keep the yips at bay. Or perhaps each kick is its own self-contained entity. Disassociated with the one that came before.

When James went wayward on that first effort, Barnes’ soothsaying again boomed over the broadcast mics, ‘miss those and you lose matches.’ However, not all of the Clermont kicker’s efforts were gimmes.

brock-james-watches-as-his-last-minute-drop-goal-goes-wide Shane Jennings begins to celebrate after James misses the target. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His box score come full-time was a sorry looking 5/10 off the tee with three more drop-goals pumped wide. Of those five misses, you could argue that two of them were bad misses. Other times it seemed as though his captain Aurélien Rougerie or perhaps a coach ought to have directed him to kick for touch rather than aim at the posts difficult distances and angles. 

This was the season when Clermont finally got what Schmidt later called ‘a silverback gorilla’ off their back by winning the Bouclier de Brennus after 99 years of trying and James was in imperious form on the domestic front.

Morgan Parra, then 21 and 18 months shy of starting a World Cup final, was given a shot to nothing early in the second half. But otherwise Clermont trusted their primary playmaker, thinking ‘form is temporary’ and James showed enough technical class to cloud any decision lingering over his kicking duties.

There was no pattern here. James was inconsistent enough to keep hold of the kicking tee. He would slot an extremely tough effort from the right touchline, then miss one centrally from outside the 22. He’d take on a penalty from near halfway and then from 40 metres out wide on the right, miss them both and then come back looking for more.

Crucially, he was still in fine form in open play. A delicate chip and regather in Leinster’s 22 before Gonzalo Canale set up the first installment in Julien Malzieu’s hat-trick, a gorgeous floating pass that helped Marius Joubert ghost around O’Driscoll and set the wing away again.

He kicked his last two efforts off the tee on the night to leave the visitors holding a 23-28 lead with just under 20 minutes to go. It would have been a brave call by coach or captain to switch responsibilities then, or to give the 10 the shepherd’s crook.

brock-james-and-jonathan-sexton James kicks ahead with Jonathan Sexton in close attendance. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

What really casts a bad light on James’ return that night was the future world player of the year playing opposite him. The commentary team remind us of how fickle perception of form can be as they lament his poor kicking ratio during his first Six Nations. When a goalkicker is in flawless form, the scoreboard just keeps ticking and there is little to discuss. Sexton’s first miss that evening came in the 70th minute.

In hindsight, he had a solid excuse for it.

After nerveless kicking seven of his eight attempts at the RDS, Sexton wound up missing the European Cup semi-final against Toulouse three weeks later with a broken jaw. An injury he appeared to pick up while being cleared out of a 59th minute ruck.

Gritting his teeth probably wasn’t an option, but the current Ireland captain quietly showed the steely resolve and mental strength that has constantly set him apart throughout his career. A broken jaw didn’t stop him kicking six points to turn the contest around.

This was not Clermont’s best opportunity to win a European Cup, but it does mark a point when paths diverged. It was Schmidt’s last season in tandem with Vern Cotter and the future Ireland boss didn’t waste time becoming a key figure standing between the Massif Central side and the Heineken Cup they craved.

joe-schmidt Schmidt had already caught Leinster's eye before Clermont's narrow loss. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Among the litany of missed opportunities for Clermont, Leinster blocked their path in each of the two seasons, scuppering them in the 2012 semi-final after helping them towards the Challenge Cup when they were pool rivals in 2010/11.

Even with all James’ missed opportunities on 9 April 2010, that year’s French champions still muscled their way towards a chance to win the game. The clock read 79.40 and the Victoria native is standing dead centre, 30 metres out from goal.

Then a decision is made in front of him, one more pick and drive. The angle changes, Parra’s pass is high and slow, James’ attempt still seems aligned to the previous angle and the ball sails straight, true and well wide.

If this was a choke, then it’s not a classic of the genre. Not a Greg Norman or Rory McIlroy, nor a two-set capitulation in tennis. It came along thanks to a swathe of little seize-ups and indecision within a side desperately chasing elusive silverware.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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