Clermont really don't like it when their natural rhythms are disrupted, says Neil Francis
A 50-game winning streak at home in the Auvergne – that is more than just a statistic. How do you storm that fortress? I have thought about it, it's simple: you rush the gift shop, trample the two little old ladies running it to the ground and the keep is yours.
Irish sides travelling to France looking for improbable results – that's something we used to view with the same weary resignation that you would consign your crumpled lotto ticket into the waste paper bin. Formerly out-gunned in every department, now our provinces set foot on French soil with a sense of equilibrium. The only invariable is fear. Fear of failure is the prime mover. However, there are places you can go where the consignment of your fate has a strong correlation with what happens off the park, but only a few metres off it. The cauldron that is Stade Marcel Michelin. Other than that, this afternoon is 15 against 15.
The problem with being champions is the responsibility it bestows upon that team. Leinster have this great facility to roust themselves when they need to and if they recognise that that's the quality required this afternoon, well then they have a good chance of winning. They haven't got out of second gear since they played the same opposition in Bordeaux last April.
The supposition that they can raise it to the same giddy heights depends on a number of factors.
I watched Toulon play Clermont in the Stade Marcel Michelin a few weeks ago. Bakkies Botha played that night and I watched him run across the park dispensing justice like an avenging angel. Nobody in the Clermont pack was afraid of him and the physical exchanges that night were an affront to the sanctity of human life, undiluted savagely meted out in cold blood to the ball carrier. If the ball carrier went on his own he was met high and low, if he had a truck and trailer they were gang-tackled. The gainline was something that remained aspirational for the full 80. Toulon failed by three points. In the harshest hysteria of the soul, Leinster will know that Toulon failed not through lack of will but were a synapse off the intelligence required to unlock Clermont's line.
Leinster's defence this season in the Rabo has been awful. They have leaked 25 tries in 10 games. We know that Leinster play a radically different type of game when they play in the Heineken and out of necessity their defensive efficiencies tighten up significantly.
These 80 minutes though will need a defensive performance that marks the hour the dog goes to wolf. Instinct is key. Defensively Leinster have drifted – and dealt harshly with the ball carrier in wide channels. But they cede yardage with this tactic. A passive aggressive approach in Dublin is fine; in the Auvergne their defensive efficiency will have to be total. Intelligent laziness won't work.
Sivivatu and Fofana on both wings only need medium-pace ball from a recycle that has gainlined on the other wing.
It is, though, what the Leinster forwards do around the extremities that will determine whether they have a chance. How they repulse the direct lines of running, particularly from the highly impressive powerhouse Damien Chouly. They give him the ball an awful lot. If it takes three to stop him six or seven metres behind the gain-line, it is going to be a long afternoon.
I reckon Leinster will have to keep Clermont to about six points for the first 30 minutes. Play keep-ball without making targets of themselves and depend on Sexton's tactical excellence, but only do so when the cover has been drawn. Clermont are excellent defensively in the back field. They have about four sweepers in that sector, including the ever-alert Parra – you won't get much
change out of Lee Byrne either – but Sivivatu and Fofana are there for attacking brio as opposed to their goalkeeping and ping-pong abilities. There are weaknesses there .
Clermont, from what I have seen in the Top 14 over the last five years, try to stretch sides by going wide and cleverly mix it up with their big strike runners in the middle of the park to stop sides just fanning out. They change direction naturally and Brock James has a handy line in grubbers and chips. Rather than trying to create something special, I think Leinster should and will spend a lot of their time stopping Clermont playing their natural game.
If Leinster are direct enough in stopping them, Clermont are one side who react badly to being unable to play the game that suits them. If Leinster can score in the limited time they have the ball, this will be a close game.
Leinster will still be in the competition if they lose – 20 points will see them home – so their motivation should be clear. If they win in Clermont, they will win another Heineken Cup.