Cheika backing Leinster
Former supremo believes that, in Joe Schmidt, the Blues have perfect coach to lead them into European battle against Clermont
Published 08/12/2010 | 05:00
He made his intriguing statement around the time the thermometer was diving below zero and, well, you just wondered whether the cold had hit Michael Cheika's brain in the wrong place.
No Rob Kearney, no Luke Fitzgerald and maybe no Brian O'Driscoll. Yet the Australian was crystal clear in his belief.
"Leinster to beat Clermont Auvergne by a superior points tally over the two legs," said the Stade Francais coach. An hour or two later on a Paris night made evil by the bitter cold, there was even more reason to wonder.
The news came through that Clermont, the champions of France and Leinster's opponents in the Heineken Cup over the next two weekends, had just beaten mighty Toulouse, champions of Europe, 32-25 in a French Top 14 match.
Over to you Mr Cheika; an explanation, please...
For a start, Clermont's reputation at the Stade Michelin high up in the snow-covered Auvergne hills goes before them. Turning them over on their own patch happens about as often as the All Blacks lose in New Zealand.
Yet Cheika wasn't daunted as he analysed probably the Heineken Cup's most fascinating tie over the next two weekends. "I'll agree; Clermont do play well, especially at home," he said. "They may not play more of a flat line deception game like some of the southern hemisphere teams do, but they do play with width. But I think Leinster will go alright."
That, by the way, is Australian for they have a real chance. Sure, but things to watch? "Clermont have a big forward power base. Okay, being without Kearney, Fitzgerald and maybe O'Driscoll is going to hurt Leinster a bit but I think one thing they have really got as an advantage is that Clermont think they should have won last year (in Dublin). Therefore, their mentality may be that it's going to be a formality up in Clermont.
"But I think Leinster have the inside running on them with the coach. He is going to know the opposition so well; going to know lots of little things and little details about that side and all the players.
"That is very important, just to know what to do with certain individuals you will come up against. I could see some examples of that through him when Leinster played Racing Metro 92 of Paris. He knew several of those French players and made some smart plans.
"That is a real advantage. Of course it's going to be tough in Auvergne, without a doubt. But you have got to look at it over the two legs, so it's the most points out of the two games. And I think Leinster will achieve that."
It hardly needs me to remind someone like Joe Schmidt of the perils of writing off a French team. You might be spot on but you might look very silly, very quickly. C'est la vie.
However, Clermont have had an uneven season to date. Before last Saturday's win over Toulouse, they had won six and lost six of their 12 French Top 14 games -- hardly the stuff of champions -- leaving them no better than mid-table.
But what they did have was a parsimonious defence: just 192 points conceded in 12 matches, by a long way the best record of the entire French championship.
They've narrowly lost several games that might have gone their way. But you could see against Toulouse, especially in the way international wing Julien Malzieu hit the after-burners and skated through the Toulouse defence, that plenty of threat exists outside the Clermont scrum. This is not an imbalanced team.
Malzieu is currently the second-highest try scorer in the French championship with six. Surprisingly, the huge impact Australian kicker Brock James has had on Clermont's game in recent years, with his usual rich haul of penalty goals, has been largely absent this year. He isn't even in the top 10 of the French kickers at present.
That may be due in part to the desire of Clermont coach Vern Cotter to see his side expand their horizons, broaden their playing options away from the claustrophobic penalty kicking fest that the French championship has become in recent years. And there is more than a whiff of suspicion that Cotter has targeted the Heineken Cup this year.
Nevertheless, threats reside throughout this side, not least in an all-international back row of Alexandre Lapandry, Elvis Vermeulen and New Zealander Sione Lauaki. There's no doubt that if Lauaki had harnessed commitment and reliability to his undoubted power and threat on the field he would still be back in New Zealand and probably preparing for next year's World Cup.
But New Zealander Cotter took a punt on Lauaki when others desisted, due to his reputation. And at his best, this back-row powerhouse is one of the most dynamic forward carriers of the ball in world rugby. Dangerous and destructive... and sometimes to himself.
Julien Pierre and Thibault Privat form a second-row pairing of durability and mean French muscle. And the front row -- French loose-head Thomas Domingo, Argentinian hooker Mario Ledesma and Georgian tight-head Davit Zirakashvili -- are throwbacks to the past in their devotion to the scrummaging art.
Behind the forwards, French international half-back Morgan Parra will plot tactically and kick goals cheerfully. Further out, Aurelien Rougerie remains a strong, dangerous runner in broken play and Napolioni Nalaga is a destructively dangerous finisher on the other wing to Malzieu.
But then, we know Clermont's attributes; Lauaki apart, this will be a side familiar to Leinster. So perhaps Cheika is right to focus on the Irish team rather than eulogise at length the players of the French champions.
How does the Australian find watching his old charges? He smiles. "I watch them now as a supporter more than anything. I have left now; at the start it was more difficult but now they have got their own thing going and I definitely have got my own thing going here (at Stade Francais).
"I think Joe (Schmidt) is on the right track; I like what he has done. He has added some nice touches with the team, Jonno (Gibbes) is going well with the forwards and the new scrum coach (Greg Feek) looks like he is doing a good job because they seem to be going really well in the pack and they're strong in the scrum.
"That was the plan always; to make sure you left something good that gets built on with the right person. That's occurred because Joe has added some very nice touches."
You could excuse Schmidt and Leinster for a sense of bewilderment as they tackle Clermont over successive weekends. After all, most associated with French rugby have been more concerned with "wrist slashing" since they were annihilated by Australia 11 days ago.
But Cheika isn't one of those offering a knife, even though he's Australian. How to explain that 59-16 hammering by the Wallabies? "One lot had a really good day, the other lot a really bad day. That is a combination of factors.
"That scoreline wasn't a real reflection of what happens in Test football. And there is no need for the French to go slashing their wrists now. They will still be a danger at the World Cup because they are the one team with experience of winning down there, in New Zealand.
"I believe you will see it straight away at the Six Nations in the new year. But the French will need some of the guys with experience who were left out of that Australia match, players like Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc and Florian Fritz of Toulouse. But France have good players. To say otherwise would be silly."
The likelihood is we'll see that point confirmed at Clermont Auvergne on Sunday. And Leinster will know that as well as anybody.