Leinster produced a courageous display at Stade Marcel Michelin to earn a valuable bonus point in a 20-13 Heineken Cup defeat to Clermont Auvergne.
Shane Horgan gave the visitors a dream start with a try after only three minutes, but scores from Julien Malzieu and Anthony Floch in either half saw the reigning French champions come from behind to claim victory.
Crucially though, Morgan Parra missed a late penalty which would have seen Leinster leave with nothing after a bruising encounter at Stade Marcel Michelin.
But the result means that the province stay one point clear at the top of Pool 2 ahead of the return match between the sides at the Aviva Stadium in six days’ time.
Leinster boss Joe Schmidt, who was Clermont Auvergne’s backs coach for three years, was given a warm welcome from the home supporters before the game.
But his hopes of getting one over on his former club were hampered by injuries to first choice backs Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney.
Nonetheless, his understrength side played some fantastic attacking rugby in an end-to-end first half before digging deep at the death to stay on course for a place in the quarter-finals.
Heineken Cup debutant Eoin O’Malley was one of the leading lights for Leinster along with the pacy Fergus McFadden, while Sean O’Brien, who made some telling carries, and Leo Cullen got through a huge amount of work up front.
The scrum also put in a solid shift, with Mike Ross enjoying a ding dong battle with the highly-regarded Thomas Domingo.
Isaac Boss was preferred to fellow Ireland international Eoin Reddan at scrum half, while Jamie Heaslip and Nathan Hines also bolstered the Leinster line-up as Schmidt sought to counter the hosts’ physicality.
A cold snap in Ireland meant the former Heineken Cup champions had difficulty training over the past two weeks, but they looked sharp from the outset and stunned Clermont with a well-worked early try.
After some great interplay by Jonathan Sexton and Gordon D’Arcy, a Shane Jennings pass was partially intercepted on the right wing by Malzieu. However, Horgan was still able to recover the ball and finish in the corner.
Sexton, who led the back-line well, then followed up with the difficult conversion to put Leinster 7-0 ahead.
Clermont responded strongly and out-half Brock James was almost in for a try soon after the restart. Some desperate Leinster defending only resulted in a temporary reprieve, however, and when Rougerie fed Malzieu, he broke Sexton’s tackle to snipe over for a try. Parra slotted over to tie the game.
The frenetic start continued with Leinster immediately working their way back into the opposing 22. Their willingness to run the ball at every opportunity was rewarded with a penalty on the left and Sexton struck it over to put them 10-7 in front on 13 minutes.
The odds looked stacked against the visitors as the half wore on though with the inspirational Heaslip and O’Brien both feeling the effects of some huge hits.
Parra kicked Clermont level after 25 minutes and Leinster were let off the hook when full-back Floch shot an easy drop goal attempt wide, shortly before the sides went in at the break tied at 10-10.
Heaslip was forced off shortly after the restart and it was not long before Clermont hit the front for the first time.
After a sustained spell of pressure, Floch sidestepped D’Arcy’s tackle to find the corner. Parra converted to give Clermont a 17-10 lead.
The sides then traded penalties around the hour mark as Leinster stood firm, before Parra missed a penalty with six minutes left that could yet cost his side dearly.