Clermont 'the most complete' side in France
LIONS coach Ian McGeechan believes they are the best team in the competition and Leinster coach Michael Cheika is not inclined to disagree, yesterday describing Heineken Cup quarter-final opponents Clermont Auvergne as the "most complete" side in France.
Considering that France provide four of the last eight combatants and have just completed the Grand Slam with a clutch of Clermont players in their ranks, Cheika is not merely indulging in traditional pre-match platitudes as the Heineken Cup champions steel themselves for what promises to be a seismic showdown in the RDS on Friday night.
He was in Paris to see Clermont's Top 14 clash with Stade Francais (the team he inherits next season) at the weekend and, though Vern Cotter's men lost 19-10 to their fellow quarter-finalists, the defeat has not diminished Cheika's regard for a side that is determined to finally translate ability into silverware this season.
Clermont are perennial bridesmaids in France, runners-up on 10 occasions (including the last three finals), and were good enough to go all the way in Europe in 2008 and 2009 but were undone by drawing Munster at the pool stages on both occasions.
This season has been earmarked as the one where Clermont finally take the next step and, cruising towards a Top 14 play-off spot with the best points differential in the league after 24 rounds (+227, 78 points ahead of nearest challengers Toulouse), the French side are determined to make a powerful statement on Friday.
"Are they the most complete side in France? I think so," said Cheika. "They seem to have a bit of everything; big power up front, an excellent set piece, they can be very destructive in the maul and they have some interesting play-makers such as (scrum-half) Morgan Parra who was the Player of the Six Nations.
"He's orchestrating everything around the base, there's (out-half) Brock James and they have a lot of other threats across their backline and off the bench as well. We see them as the best team that's operating in France at the moment and I think it really resonates for us that it's going to be a massive game.
"As far as their position in the French league is concerned, two of the teams ahead of them aren't playing in Europe so the teams that are having to fight on two fronts are managing quite well, of which Clermont is probably top of the pack."
When facing opponents of this calibre it helps to have your best players available and Cheika was pleased to announce that Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll and international team-mates Shane Horgan and Kevin McLaughlin should be available for selection.
"We'd be confident that all of them will play. Brian did some training over the weekend as did Kevin, while Shane will train today (Monday) although he has been doing some off-field stuff," said Cheika.
"We're taking an extra precaution to get him right for this week, and he'd be pretty confident as well, so there should be no problem there. Shane's an experienced player, but it doesn't mean it's an automatic entry because the lads have been playing very well. Girvan (Dempsey) has been playing out of his skin while (Rob) Kearney's playing well, so it's going to come down to selection.
"But the fact that he's available for us, all going well this week, will make a lot of difference to the make up of the team."
Psychologically, the Good Friday Magners League win over Munster in Thomond Park was the ideal preparation for this test but Cheika is mindful of the fact that the 30-0 victory over Tony McGahan's side last October was followed a week later by defeat in Europe to London Irish. Leinster were able to recover from that setback but this time around there are no second chances.
"This is sudden death football now, so I think it's going to come down to who wants it more on the night now," said the Leinster coach.
"Friday's win (against Munster) makes this week a bit easier and you've a bit more of a smile on your face from a preparation point of view, but that's about it. We've learned too many times in all competitions -- whether it's in European back-to-backs, or Magners (League) to Heineken Cup, or Magners to Magners -- that the last week means nothing unless you back it up the next week.
"Clermont are a team who don't seem to have an issue about going away from home. They have shown their strategic prowess in the two matches they played in their pool against Leicester and the Ospreys. They're also very well managed and it's going to be the biggest battle of our season so far."
The RDS will have an increased capacity of 20,000 for Friday night's encounter and the match is a sell-out. Leinster's 25-man squad includes 15 Ireland internationals and four overseas players -- CJ van der Linde (South Africa), Stan Wright (Cook Islands), Nathan Hines (Scotland) and Isa Nacewa (Fiji).