Leinster’s Biggest Test Awaits

by Murray Kinsella

While Ulster go into their Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh as favourites thanks to the home draw, Leinster face their biggest challenge yet with a trip to take on Clermont.

It’s easy for us to focus on Leinster’s brilliance this season and that is definitely fair. At times, Joe Schmidt’s side have torn opposition to shreds with their incisive and spontaneous attacking game. They are surely one of the most watchable rugby teams on the planet. However, Clermont are having an equally impressive season and they pose a threat that Leinster haven’t yet encountered.

Clermont sit joint-top of the French Top 14 with just 2 games remaining. Their spot in the play-offs is already secure.  They’ve lost just 4 times in 24 games, all of those coming away from home. Vern Cotter’s side marginally trail Toulouse in terms of points scored (568) while they have by far the meanest defence in the league (320). Interestingly, they are only 5th in the try-scoring rankings, which may suggest a slight reliance on kicking goals.

Having finally broken their Top 14 duck by beating Perpignan in the 2010 final, Clermont have now focused their attention on Heineken Cup glory. While a Top 14 and H-Cup double is still on the cards, this weekend’s game holds the greater motivation for the French side. A semi-final is new territory, mainly due to Brock James’ infamous bottling performance against Leinster in the 2010 quarter-final.

Leinster also played a part in Clermont’s failure to progress from the pool stages last season. Both teams were drawn in Pool 2 and Leinster beat Cotton’s men at home as well as taking a rare losing bonus point at the Stade Marcel Michelin. Clearly, a considerable amount of revenge is on the cards for Clermont. Les Juanards certainly have the firepower to get the job done.

Starting in the front-row, there are 6 internationals to choose from, even though Thomas Domingo is missing. With the likes of French-capped Vincent Debaty and Samoan international Ti’i Pualo likely to start on the bench, Clermont have the luxury of bringing on an equally strong trio in the second half. Scrum-time is going to be an immense battle. Hopefully it doesn’t slow down what should be a breathless encounter.

Behind that front-row, Nathan Hines is someone Leinster fans know all about. His leadership and physicality are nicely complemented by strong footballing skills. Alongside him will be either French international Julien Pierre or the overly aggressive Jamie Cudmore. Leinster will surely look to wind up the Canadian with the notoriously short fuse if he plays.

The back-row is somewhere I feel Leinster will have the edge over Clermont. With Gerhard Vosloo out, 23-year-old Alex Lapandry looks set to start at openside. Beside him, Julien Bonnaire and Elvis Vermuelen are now both 33. While they’re both still serious operators, I think Heaslip, O’Brien and AN Other (Jennings for me) will better Clermont’s back-row in terms of speed to the breakdown, as well as in the ball-carrying stakes.

The backline is dripping with quality, but James at outhalf will prove crucial. Wesley Fofana, Aurelian Rougerie, Julien Malzieu, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lee Byrne are a group of players crying out to be released by an attacking number 10. The Australian is certainly better in that regard than David Skrela. However, James’ history against Leinster will prey on Cotton’s mind. The outhalf will have to bury his demons if Clermont are to advance.

The fact that home advantage in the semi-final doesn’t mean the Stade Marcel Michelin is something of a saving grace for Leinster. Clermont’s record of 42 consecutive games unbeaten in that cauldron would have made the task even more difficult. Stade Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux is the choice of venue, with a capacity of almost 37,000. While not as intimidating an environment, Leinster fans will still be heavily outnumbered.

Confidence should justifiably be part of Leinster’s make-up coming into Sunday’s game, but the enormity of the task at hand should not be underestimated. From a Clermont perspective, the club has been building towards an occasion like this. They will feel it’s their time to wrestle Heineken Cup supremacy from the reigning champions. Make no mistake, Leinster face their biggest test yet.

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