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Letter from Marseille: Leinster exit as French power prevails in Europe

Our man in France reflects on an absorbing Champions Cup semi-final weekend.

Murray Kinsella reports from Marseille

The potential classics never transpired, but Champions Cup semi-final weekend served up ample excitement, tension, competition and pain.

A stray cat crosses the field A stray cat runs across the turf at Stade Vélodrome yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Our weekend started in the sleepy city of Saint-Étienne, where it proved virtually impossible to locate a Saracens fan the evening before their meeting with Clermont. It wasn’t much better the following day at the wonderful Stade Geoffrey-Guichard, as ASM’s prodigiously impressive support delivered a masterclass.

In fairness they had only an hour and a half to travel down from the Auvergne, but les Jaunards turned out in force, opening up the boots of their cars for Ricard and Madeleine-based picnics before marching on the home ground of the local Ligue 1 side.

‘Ici, ici, Montferrand’ felt like the genuine truth as it bellowed around Stade Geoffrey-Guichard, with Clermont’s mob taking hold of the place an hour before kick-off. By the time that whistle was sounded, the stadium – filled by a French semi-final record crowd of 41,500 – felt as though it was bouncing.

It’s been hard to warm to Saracens in recent seasons despite the presence of a former Ireland international as their director of rugby in Mark McCall. The paucity of fans who followed the team to France again left the impression that Sarries is still more of an organisation than a rugby club, though the short timeframe between quarter and semi-finals made it a tougher trip to sort.

We always feel McCall would be far more lauded on home soil were he at a different English club. It’s easy to imagine the Irish pride if Conor O’Shea brought Harlequins into a European semi-final.

There’s notably more goodwill for Leinster hero Jono Gibbes and his Clermont troupe, and few neutrals would wish against the nearly men finally securing their holy grail in Twickenham early in May.

While the atmosphere in Saint-Étienne was one that will live on in memories for years to come, the game itself was largely forgettable. One moment of inspiration from Brock James lit up the contest and guided the creative Wesley Fofana over the tryline for a score that proved to be the difference.

Clermont fans Clermont have the best fans in the business. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Saracens will wonder what might have been had Charlie Hodgson been able to slam over a difficult long-range penalty just before half time to give them a 9-3 lead that may have shaken Clermont.

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Certain ‘home’ fans were rather rattled at that point it seemed, despite the incessant volume of their support. One particularly robust woman took her frustration out on a neighbouring man, the pair being escorted away after a bout of fisticuffs as Hodgson’s penalty slipped wide. In-fighting over, Clermont regathered and dominated the 10 minutes after half time to put themselves into a winning position.

Such was their joy at securing a second European final, les Vulcans even managed to add some volume and colour to the dreamy calm of the Saint-Étienne nightlife.

Onto the TGV and on towards sunny Marseille by the sea, only to be greeted by a deluge of good Irish rain, the one with the big drops. It put something of a dampener on an occasion that was always going to find it difficult to match up to the events in Stade Geoffrey-Guichard.

Not to suggest Toulon’s followers were not impressive, while the pockets of defiant blue dotted around Olympique Marseille’s home stadium deserve credit too.

The drama of extra time looked to compensate for 80 minutes of hard-fought but error-strewn rugby, though the regular-time battle was absorbing and enthralling throughout.

Quade Cooper was celebrity guest number one, having been wined and dined the night before by a French rugby agent. The Australian may be the next star to sign on Toulon’s lucrative dotted line, even if the actual rugby might have turned Cooper off somewhat.

Dejected Leinster fans Leinster's support was left heartbroken by a narrow defeat. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Mourad Boudjellal usually gets what he wants in terms of recruitment, and Cooper will be hard pushed to reject the millionaire’s courting. Boudjellal was as ever an intriguing element at Stade Vélodrome, pacing the sideline, celebrating Bryan Habana’s try as heartily as any supporter and then taking his mandatory post-match press conference.

RCT is the comic book king’s baby and he treats it royally. That last summer’s big signing, the one tooth-less Leigh Halfpenny, was crowned man of the match after  a decisive performance will have left Boudjellal regally pleased.

And so onto Twickenham the European procession heads, where Clermont are sure to have strong support even outside their own band. Boudjellal will be very much of the mind that the king stay the king.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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