Leinster prepare to unleash hell
Home side faces fierce battle to defend fortress against motivated Gallic invaders, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY
For ASM Clermont Auvergne, this journey goes all the way back to 52BC when Vercingetorix, chieftain of the Arverni tribe, united the Gauls in a revolt against Julius Ceasar.
Honestly. But if you don’t believe us then believe Joe Schmidt, their former coach who today adopts the role of Caesar, overseeing the crushing of Clermont’s modern-day Vercingetorix (aka Aurélien Rougerie) in the decisive battle of the Gallic wars at Alesia (the Aviva stadium). That victory allowed the Romans (Leinster) to expand their reign over the entire landmass of Gaul. Sport is war, isn’t it?
Clermont were unable to transfer their campaign onto the continent of Europe until they had recaptured Vercingetorix’s shield. Otherwise known as the Bouclier de Brennus. Until then, the Heineken Cup was third on their list of priorities.
“You wanted to protect your home ground and you wanted to win the Top 14,” Schmidt explained.
Indeed, all that changed during his final season alongside Vern Cotter as the Kiwi double act finally delivered the Top 14 title in 2010.
“The Bouclier de Brennus comes from the Auvergne region,” Schmidt explained, immediately warming to the historical depth of his former home. “It had never been back. The Vercingetorix is in the town centre. It is his shield. I think there is a weight of expectation that they needed to bring the shield back at some stage after 100 years. That weight only became heavier because they made 10 finals before actually winning it.
“It definitely changed in my last year, the job was done, the shield was delivered, 65,000 celebrated in the Place de Jaude . Now, they have taken it another step.”
The 2009/10 season also saw Cotter, Schmidt and Rougerie finally muster an army strong enough to fight on both the domestic and European fronts.
Alas, their Australian outhalf Brock James – a man whose boot has won them countless battles – left a lifetime of points out on the RDS field in the quarter-final. Leinster beat them 29-28 as James missed five place-kicks and skewered three drop goals.
A crushing defeat but also the moment attitudes hardened within the French club.
“That night in the RDS there was nothing half baked, no half attitudes. I think it has been a bit of a gradual swing as they realised they are well able to be the best in Europe.
“I remember my first year in Clermont (2007/08) we drew the Pool, 19 points all, with Munster, who went on to win the Heineken Cup and when we went away to Munster we made 14 changes. There was just no real interest in the Heineken Cup; it was all about winning the Top 14.
“I’ve never been in a situation where Clermont rest a number of their top flight players against Toulouse so they can be better prepared against Leinster in the European Cup.
“That’s the clearest indication of the swing that they’ve made. Being honest, they’ve got plenty of fire power to get there. I think they are a super team.”
Any hope that the “French” may not be up for a trip to Dublin in deep December simply doesn’t stand up anymore.
“There are 11 different nationalities so ‘French’ is an interesting way to describe them. They have three All Blacks in their mix, a Georgian who is a world class scrummager. Those days are gone. They are too cosmopolitan, too professional and too well equipped now for any team to expect if they get ahead of them on 60 minutes that they are going to fold. I just can’t see them doing it.”
All told, the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator could go the other way today. Unless Maximus (a hybrid of Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip) intervenes to turn the tide back Leinster’s way.
On my signal, unleash hell.
Away day blues Clermont's record
In the five seasons since Joe Schmidt joined Vern Cotter at Clermont, the club’s attitude to away games has dramatically altered. Still, they have lost all five round four matches on the road.
Overal l away: Pl 17, W 6, D 0, L 11
Round 2: Munster 36-13 Clermont
Round 4: Wasps 25-24 Clermont
Round 6: Scarlets 0-41 Clermont
Round 2 : Montauban 19-24 Clermont
Round 4: Munster 23-13 Clermont
Round 6: Sale 26-17 Clermont
Round 2: Ospreys 25-24 Clermont
Round 4: Leicester 20-15 Clermont
Round 6: Viadana 20-59 Clermont
QF: Leinster 29-28 Clermont
Round 2: Racing Metro 16-9 Clermont
Round 4: Leinster 24-8 Clermont
Round 6: Saracens 14-24 Clermont
Round 1: Ulster 16-11 Clermont
Round 4: Leicester Tigers 23-19 Clermont
Round 5: Aironi 0-82 Clermont
QF: Saracens 3-22 Clermont Semi-final (Bordeaux): Clermont 15-19 Leinster