O'Driscoll and D'Arcy can expose Clermont soft centre
Leinster must make most of midfield advantage in bid to halt Gallic raiders
WHILE Northampton are busy trying to talk themselves out of victory in their Heineken Cup quarter-final tie with Munster tomorrow by rubbishing the Thomond Park factor -- grist to the southerners' mill -- Clermont are disconcertingly quiet as they sidle into the RDS tonight for their clash with champions Leinster.
The Saints are bullish after a run of nine wins from 10 outings (since their defeat to Munster in the pool stages at the end of January) and are full of treble talk having already landed the Anglo Welsh Cup.
Meanwhile, Clermont arrive in Dublin on the back of defeat to Stade Francais in Paris last weekend and, in direct contrast to the bombastic nonsense emitted by England's sole Heineken Cup survivors, have been exhibiting a "just happy to be here" demeanour that flies in the face of a side brimming with quality.
A sense of humility is unavoidable when you consider that Clermont have not reached the quarter-finals since 2002 and are perennial bridesmaids in the Top 14 (losing the last three finals), but they are all the more dangerous because of it.
"We haven't played a Heineken Cup quarter-final for so long. As it's the first time we've clashed with a foreign team at this level, it gives a new dimension to our performance," says captain Aurélien Rougerie, whose side were denied the last-eight spot their abilities deserved in recent times by being drawn against Munster at the pool stages for two seasons on the bounce.
"We hadn't been very lucky with the drawing of lots for some time, but it gave us even more motivation," acknowledges visitors' coach Vern Cotter. "As Leinster are the favourites, we aren't under pressure."
The New Zealander is denied the services of French international Benoit Baby and Fijian bruisers Seremaia Bai and Napolioni Nalaga, but is still able to name a dauntingly powerful team. The back three of Anthony Floch, Rougerie and Julien Malzieu oozes menace, the half-backs and front-row are, arguably, the best units in French rugby, while the back-row of Julien Bonnaire, Alexandre Lapandry and Elvis Vermeulen represents a potent combination of power and pace.
Only in the centres, where South African Marius Joubert partners Italian Gonzalo Canale, and the second-row, where Canadian grappler Jamie Cudmore packs down next to Thibaut Privat, do they appear more functional than flamboyantly talented and these are areas Leinster will need to attack.
Brian O'Driscoll returns for his first outing since Ireland's Six Nations defeat to Scotland and, if he is at full throttle, he and Gordon D'Arcy have the capacity to make hay in midfield.
Similarly in the second-row, Leinster captain Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines have the edge in experience and savvy, with Cullen's line-out influence particularly crucial, given that Clermont have the supreme athleticism and ball-winning skills of Bonnaire at their disposal.
If Leinster coach Michael Cheika is banking on O'Driscoll slipping straight back into the groove, he will be hoping for the same return from right wing Shane Horgan and blindside flanker Kevin McLaughlin, who are similarly restored to the side after injury-enforced absences.
Elsewhere, the Leinster selection is along expected lines, with Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa filling out the back three, Jonathan Sexton and the in-form Eoin Reddan continuing their half-back partnership and Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip completing the back-row.
As with last week's trip to Limerick, Cheika has opted for an overseas propping combination of Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde, with the Irish pair of Cian Healy and Mike Ross reduced to bench duties. We have been beating this particular drum like Animal from the Muppets, but feel obliged once again to point out how frustrating this front-row situation is from an Ireland perspective.
However, Wright is in the form of his life at loose-head and, if Van der Linde wishes to leave Leinster followers with positive memories of his troubled time with the province, then tonight is the night.
Leinster are marginal favourites, but victory this evening hinges on two critical factors -- Sexton's accuracy off the kicking tee and Kurt McQuilkin's defensive system withstanding the best-laid plans of Clermont backs coach (and soon-to-be Leinster supremo) Josef Schmidt.
Sexton's all-round game has been strong through the Six Nations and their last two Magners League victories, while his mental fortitude was emphasised by winning kicks against Connacht and Munster in those outings. However, in what is destined to be a tense encounter, it is essential that the out-half exploits the point-scoring opportunities that come his way, for both James and Morgan Parra are deadly in this regard.
Last week in Thomond Park, the Leinster defensive line withstood all that Munster could unleash upon them and it proved the foundation for a well-merited win. However, Clermont will be more cerebral on the ball and will take encouragement from the try-scoring example set by Connacht winger Fionn Carr a week earlier.
The home team have the power and experience to match Clermont in the set-pieces and Jennings could provide a vital advantage at the breakdown, where discipline, as ever, will be key as referee David Pearson is not shy on the whistle.
On a weekend of intriguing match-ups this is the tie of the round, worthy of the final, and one that is packed with point-proving punch. Leinster's Ireland contingent have not forgotten February's 33-10 humiliation in Paris, while Clermont are sick to the teeth of their obvious ability not matching achievement.
There should be nothing in it, but 15 years of Heineken Cup history demonstrates the value of home advantage at this stage and, if Sexton kicks his goals and the Leinster line holds firm, Cheika's side have enough about them to book their place in the semi-finals.