Clermont to gain a measure of revenge
Only those Leinster supporters fortunate enough to experience the constant cacophony of rattling sabres within the Marcel Michelin two years ago can understand just how hard earned that bonus point came.
It was a gruesome, bloody battle. Wonderful stuff. Leinster could have won if Wayne Barnes deemed Shane Jennings’ lunge for the line a legitimate try. No team has won down there in the meantime.
Much like Thomond Park until recently, this is a hellishly tough place to escape from alive. The natives force their brutes – like Paul O’Connell’s Canadian pal Jamie Cudmore – from scrum to lineout, striding into the opposition 22, where they refuse to leave without some points. Even their 100 kilo, Fijian born wingers like to get involved, making them a 10-man pack whenever they sniff a score.
Two years on, Leinster have undergone more damaging change with Shane Horgan retired, while Nathan Hines swapping allegiance is the heaviest of blows.
But Joe Schmidt appears to have conjured a clever scheme in the Leinster three-quarters by offering Gordon D’Arcy an Indian summer in the position he ever so briefly, way back in 2004, thrilled the Six Nations. D’Arcy has already booked his place in the pantheon of Irish rugby greats as an inside centre, but those old flashes of electricity were evident during last week’s defeat of Zebre. At outside centre. There he remains with the powerful Aurelien Rougerie for company. There’s history there.
This allows Andrew Goodman, a hand-picked Kiwi by Leinster’s Kiwi think-tank, to make his European debut at 12, where the brilliant Wesley Fofana will be probing.
Midfield isn’t where Clermont mortally wound teams; it’s just where most of the blood is spilt. No, they proved away to Exeter Chiefs that their game is still all about shattering the opposition at the breakdown and devouring them at set piece. They are missing loosehead prop Thomas Domingo, but Julien Bonnaire, among others, guarantees an attacking platform at the lineout.
Their 47.5 points average from the opening two rounds is somewhat misleading, as the Scarlets were a man down, but the vicious manner they gutted Exeter cannot be over-exaggerated. The best attack in Europe, however, must punch holes in the continent’s most solid defence. Leinster have made 245 tackles in rounds one and two, missing only eight for a 97 per cent completion rate, with Jamie Heaslip nailing a perfect 29 from 29 attempts.
Now you understand why Heaslip is not always so prevalent in attack or why Schmidt and Declan Kidney have no concerns about making him captain. He’s their most reliable soldier.
Schmidt also firmly believes that size matters in France. Hence, Isaac Boss, Seán Cronin, Damien Browne and Seán O’Brien keep Eoin Reddan, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner and Shane Jennings benched.
Along with Michael Bent, the forward cavalry looks healthy despite Heinke van der Merwe’s shoulder problem O’Brien’s return is huge but, with just 120 minutes banked, it is legitimate to wonder about his energy levels.
Clermont fear him. Proof is in the attempt to murder O’Brien two years ago but, like Rasputin, the midlands farmer refused to die, and kept pounding away. More of the same seems essential.
Ian Madigan has made the starting XV, so Isa Nacewa shifts to wing. This is a huge test of Madigan’s abilities at fullback, along with his mental fortitude. Morgan Parra will send Lee Byrne, Napolioni Nalaga and Sitivenu Sivivatu into the skies. Madigan must leap higher than taller men because if the ball bounces, the Clermont ogres will stampede. And it could get messy. But it shouldn’t. The Leinster dam can hold long enough for Jonathan Sexton’s boot to keep them in touch.
The biggest problem is motivation. Clermont still can’t understand how they lost April’s semi-final. The desire for revenge and sheer size of their forwards, coupled with Parra’s ability to control matters, should ensure a home victory.
By how much depends on the weakest links in the Leinster chain.
Previous meetings: 2012 semi-final – Clermont 15-19 Leinster, Stade Chaban Delmas; 2010 Pool – Leinster 24-8 Clermont, Aviva Stadium; Clermont 20-13 Leinster, Stade Marcel Michelin; , 2010 quarter-final – Leinster 29-28 Clermont, RDS.
Betting: Clermont 4/11 (-6 at 10/11), Leinster 21/10 (+6 at 10/11), draw 20/1.
Verdict: Clermont by less than seven.
Clermont v Leinster Six of the best, by
December 7th, 2002
Pool stages, round three
AS Montferrand 20 Leinster 23
A late try by Denis Hickie, superbly created by replacement outhalf Nathan Spooner, earned Leinster a brilliant, breakthrough win on French soil. They had lost on their previous half dozen sorties to France, by margins of 19 to 36 points. Montferrand were flying high, with Richard Cockerill amongst a clutch imports and a heady French brew captained by Olivier Magne.
Leinster opted to play into the wind, and three Brian O’Meara penalties from rare visits upfield left them 12-9 down at half-time. Leinster responded to a Raphael Chanal try with a fine finish by Gordon D’Arcy, who was stretchered off after David Bory kneed him in the back, and after a fifth Gerald Merceron penalty came Hickie’s match-winner.
December 13th, 2002
Pool stages, round four
Leinster 12 AS Montferrand 9,
Montferrand came to a packed Friday night under lights in Donnybrook with muscular intent and despite perfect conditions there was scarcely a hint of a try, least of all from Leinster. Again they were indebted to their defence in keeping out a Magne-inspired sequence of drives close to the Leinster line, as O’Meara twice cancelled out penalties by Merceron, who made it 9-6 at the break.
Further penalties by O’Meara in the 60th and 69th minutes, the latter from 40 metres, sealed a resilient, sleeves-rolled-up win and with it qualification, while Montferrand’s season effectively imploded from that point on.
January 9th, 2010
Leinster 29 Clermont Auvergne 28
By now, Leinster had won a first Cup the previous season under Michael Cheika but Clermont came with renewed intent and thousands of colourful and boisterous fans who began converging on a carnival-like night hours beforehand.
Julien Malzieu ignited a breathless with the first of his hat-trick before a double by the inspired Jamie Heaslip – the first created by a vintage break and offload by O’Driscoll – had Leinster 20-10 up. Back came Clermont, two more tries by Malzieu putting them 28-23 up just past the hour. Ultimately Leinster were left indebted to five missed penalties and three missed drop goals by Brock James whereas Sexton kicked seven from eight.
December 12th, 2010
Pool stages, round three
ASM Clermont Auvergne 20 Leinster 13
The newly installed Joe Schmidt had helped a star-studded Clermont reach their holy grail of a first Top 14 title the season before. With Eoin O’Malley filling in seamlessly for Brian O’Driscoll, Leinster struck inside three minutes through Shane Horgan after a trademark loop by Jonathon Sexton, who converted from the touchline.
Aurelien Rougerie soon put Malzieu over and after Morgan Parra and Sexton traded penalties either side of the break, an Anthony Floch try rewarded intense Clermont pressure. The outstanding Shane Jennings was pinged for a double movement before Parra missed a 74th minute penalty which would have denied them a bonus point.
December 18th, 2010
Pool stages, round three
Leinster 24 ASM Clermont Auvergne 8
Cian Healy, Eoin Reddan and the fit-again O’Driscoll were all restored as an inspired Leinster rose to the occasion of a record Irish crowd for a pool game.
They have rarely played better, the outstanding Healy rewarding an explosive start and waves of attacks with the first of his two tries for a 10-3 interval lead which did Leinster scant justice.
But his second soon after the restart effectively sealed the game, Seán O’Brien adding another off a quick throw by Heaslip. A late consolation try by Napolioni Nalaga off a line-out drive scarcely dampened Leinster’s spirits, as they again put Clermont out of contention before going on to regain the Cup.
April 29th 2012
ASM Clermont Auvergne 15 Leinster 19
Possibly the most intense and atmospheric of the collisions to date on a sunny spring Sunday in Bordeaux. In a familiar plotline, Clermont led 12-6 at the break through four penalties by James to two by Sexton but the game was turned on its axis by an inspired Rob Kearney after the interval.
First he trailed Isaac Boss for an inside ball before putting the supporting Healy over and then landed a long-range drop goal. After James and Sexton traded further penalties, the latter had another ruled out by the TMO before D’Arcy’s tackle dislodged Wesley Fofana’s attempted touchdown with virtually the game’s last play. And so Clermont were left fuming again.