Blue army turns out in Leinster's hour of need
A team can’t win the Heineken Cup in December, but they can lose it – and this applies in spades to the reigning holders today.
Only once, Leicester two seasons ago when taking a bonus point away and drawing at home, has a team qualified for the knock-out stages without winning one of these pivotal back-to-back games. On what is liable to be another tense and titanic battle, pressure on Leinster to win is intense.
Accordingly, in their hour of need, the blue hordes have responded. With over 48,000 tickets sold in another marketing coup for the province, the attendance will be the second highest in the tournament’s 18-year history behind the 76,569 who were at Stade Francais’ match against Harlequins at Stade de France in 2008. Now comes the hard part.
For what is a sixth meeting in four years, this pair could have provided the finalists in any of those campaigns, and for Clermont the motivation to win ought to be huge. Not alone would it leave them in the driving seat in Pool Five, and well placed for a home quarter-final, but it would probably ensure they won’t meet their nemesis again in the final or any time before then.
Failing that, a bonus point defeat would give Clermont a two-point buffer going into the final two rounds in January, when Leinster also have what looks the tougher trek to Exeter, while even denying Leinster a bonus point win would keep their noses in front.
Hence, this bruising, pacey, star-studded Clermont team arrive fully loaded with the same match-day squad. Vern Cotter starts Raphael Chaume in place of Vincent Debaty (who has been an impact replacement for the vast majority of his games) at loose head after the indignities heaped upon the latter last week, and also rotates flankers Julien Bardy and Alexandre Lapandry in an otherwise unchanged team.
After his impressive No More Mr Nice riposte to Connacht on Thursday, Joe Schmidt (Cotter’s buddy and long-time coaching sidekick) also reverts to what might be interpreted as his “home” line-up. As expected therefore, despite Isaac Boss playing so strongly last week, Eoin Reddan is recalled to further speed up Leinster’s tempo.
To that end also, Shane Jennings returns in place of Kevin McLaughlin, perhaps also to free up Seán O’Brien more from breakdown duties to let him rumble more. Surprisingly Heinke van der Meuwe rotates with Cian Healy, outstanding as usual last week. O’Brien’s season is still in its infancy, but he should be sharper after his last two outings.
Realistically, that is about the most elbow room Schmidt had. What they may possibly lose in sheer physicality without McLaughlin, they make up for in defensive and breakdown savvy with Jennings.
Clearly Leinster will set out with the ambition they reserve for these occasions. Such an approach reaped a huge dividend on the corresponding weekend two seasons ago a week after retreating from Clermont with a bonus point defeat. Even then though, despite having three tries by the 50th minute they couldn’t clinch a bonus. But Leinster were closer to optimum strength that week, have only scored one try in three Cup games to date this time and are lacking a little X factor in their back line.
You never know what might happen if they broke through early or, say, had two tries by the 50th minute. But the bonus point win they need to usurp Clermont at the top of the pool looks a tall ask against a fast-up defence that has yielded only one try.
By rights Clermont should win this. They have a bigger budget, bigger squad, lower injury list, were able to rest up a week before these collisions every bit as much as Leinster did and after so many disappointments at the hands of Irish teams (Leinster particularly) should have all the motivation in the world.
But aside from being roared on by a near capacity Aviva crowd, Joe Schmidt’s team might also be a little mentally stronger. So it was that they were able to take on Clermont in their Marcel Michelin fortress and clearly believed they could beat them there while rattling the home side’s cage.
Such is the level of insider knowledge between the two coaching tickets and groups of players that it will be hard for either of them to come up with something new.
But you suspect Leinster somehow might. And, not only do Clermont have more scars from six defeats out of six on Irish soil, Leinster are also seven wins from seven at their home from home.
LEINSTER: S Cronin, C Healy, M Bent, D Toner, K McLaughlin, I Boss, A Conway, D Kearney.
CLERMONT: T Paulo, V Debaty, D Kotze, L Jacquet, A Lapandry, L Radosavljevic, D Skrela, R King. Referee: W Barnes (Eng). Verdict: Leinster to win