European Champions Cup semi-final: Clermont Auvergne v Leinster
Kick off: 4.00pm local time (3.00pm Irish).
Venue: Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon.
TV: Sky Sports 3, 2.30
A European Cup semi-final in a 40,000-plus sell-out stadium, a mostly sunny day with forecasts of 19 degrees on the first day of polling in the French presidential elections in a town which is a stronghold for the Front National, and with Nigel Owens in charge and two teams hell-bent on having a go. This could be hot alright.
Leinster have been the tournament’s leading try scorers with 35 and averaged more points, 37, than any other team, with Clermont, who have scored 28 tries (34.3 points) next on the list. Presumably Clermont are not for turning, and it’s safe to say Leinster aren’t either.
Following on from Cian Healy’s midweek suspension, Leinster received a further blow on Friday when one of their newly named Lions quintet, Seán O’Brien, was ruled out with a hamstring injury.
In his absence, a little surprisingly given his outstanding display in last Saturday's win over Connacht, Josh van der Flier is left on the bench, with the Leinster think-tank shifting Dan Leavy to number seven and bringing in Rhys Ruddock at blindside. Not surprisingly, Fergus McFadden is recalled on the right wing, while Seán Cronin is back on the bench, where Peter Dooley comes in for Healy.
In the continuing absence of Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci, Clermont are locked and fully loaded. What sets Clermont apart from other Top 14 sides is that they can hurt opponents in all manner of ways, be it pounding a team up front and playing territory, or utilising a star-studded, pacey back-line with their trademark depth and width, all the more so if they generate momentum in front of their own fans.
They have the highest conversion of line breaks into tries of any team in the competition and in Camille Lopez they have an outhalf who can mix his game, and whose inventive kicking and hanging restarts are also weapons.
When they’re good, they’re very good. However, despite lying second in the Top 14 and being in line for a semi-final domestically, they have been hugely inconsistent, winning four and losing four of their last eight games.
Leinster, unbeaten in a dozen games, have the scrum to deny Clermont momentum there, and not many of Clermont’s opponents will have had the temerity or ability to turn defence into attack in the way they can.
Isa Nacewa, one of the survivors of the team that beat Clermont in Bordeaux at the same stage in 2012 and making his 50th appearance in the competition, admits: "It's the hardest game of the year, hands down, the brand of rugby they play. And you can see how they play for one another. With a dominant forward pack coached by the one and only Jono Gibbes, his insight into Leinster will be big for them too.
“They’re world-class players and you can see by the way they play the game, it’s a huge challenge for us. One that we have to embrace and enjoy. They’ve probably got one of the best-supported teams that travel to games and this is down the road for them. It’s going to be noisy. It’s going to be blue and yellow, but Johnny [Sexton] and myself have been telling the young guys, don’t get spooked by the occasion. Go out there and really soak it up and enjoy it.”
And Leinster will seek to play as they did in the quarter-final against Wasps. High-tempo. Offloading. Attack from turnover ball, with Joey Carbery given licence to counter. “Look, we’ve got processes that work,” says Nacewa. “When we know the way we play, it works. That’s sort of our identity at the end of the day, so we’ve just got to go out and do that.”
If the Leinster tyros cope with the occasion, they can out-run Clermont.
LEINSTER: Joey Carbery; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (captain); Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs; Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Seán Cronin, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Zane Kirchner.
CLERMONT AUVERNGE: Scott Spedding; David Strettle, Aurélien Rougerie, Remi Lamerat, Nick Abendanon; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Raphael Chaume, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Arthur Iturria, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Damien Chouly (c), Peceli Yato, Fritz Lee
Replacements: John Ulugia, Etienne Falgoux, Aaron Jarvis, Paul Jedrasiak, Alexandre Lapandry, Ludovic Radosavljevic , Pato Fernandez, Damien Penaud.
Last three meetings: (2011-12, s/f) Clermont 15 Leinster 19. (2012-13) Clermont 15 Leinster 12, Leinster 21 Clermont 28.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 1/2 Clermont, 20/1 Draw, 17/10 Leinster. Handicap odds (Leinster +4pts) Evens Clermont, 20/1 Draw, Evens Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.