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.