independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Schmidt hoping fear is Leinster's greatest ally in huge test of nerve

Just as well pre-match chatter doesn't count for a whole lot come the ball game. Why, if it did, Leinster may as well not board the plane for France this morning.

Joe Schmidt has cannily ensured that his old buddy Vern Cotter and erstwhile Clermont pals have been well stocked with plenty of material emanating from 'An Beal Bocht'.

Poor, poor Leinster, bidding for a hat-trick of Heineken halos, winners of three of the last four Heineken Cups, unbeaten in their last 17 European bouts (two of them against tomorrow's opposition).

Theirs has been quite a trick this week, somehow managing to utterly flip fear on its head.

Or, perhaps, there is some genuine foreboding of the potentially crushing reality that may await in the imposing crucible that is the Stade Marcel Michelin.

Clermont, 50 games unbeaten at home, two points ahead in the pool, are hot favourites tomorrow.

Leinster, minus Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Quinn Roux and now Heinke van der Merwe, not to mention a clutter of potential fallback options, are all the while floundering in a self-confessed struggle for decent form and continuity.

caution

Maybe there is some veracity attached to Schmidt's caution.

"I think it's just a reality," he concedes. "Five points and five points is 10 points no matter what way you look at it. A fully international squad is a fully international squad no matter what way you look at it.

"Having five key players injured is exactly that. That's the reality of the situation. But the reality also is that anyone can win on the day.

"The odds sometimes get stacked against you, but that's not something we haven't faced before. We've come out after half-time facing big deficits and have managed to get over the top and win games.

"We've managed to go to places and compete where we've had to scramble to get whatever points we can get. We know going to Clermont that we have a reasonable fighting chance and we're going there with that attitude in mind.

"I would say there's a reality there, but there's also a definite resolve about going over there because we need to get a result."

That they did exactly this two seasons ago, during the first of their journeys towards back-to-back titles, will offer encouragement.

That they did exactly this two seasons ago without messrs Kearney and O'Driscoll provides more than just a little succour.

Then, Eoin O'Malley made a name for himself as a steely presence at outside-centre; tomorrow could provide the opportunity for another unheralded midfielder, Andrew Goodman, to make his presence felt. Operating inside D'Arcy tomorrow, the 30-year-old Kiwi is a burly presence, and the only Heineken Cup debutant on show can buttress his side's kicking game too.

"I know he's very excited about it," reports the head coach, who returns to his old stomping ground for a second time – last year's epic semi-final was held in Bordeaux.

"Obviously it's a little daunting. Wesley Fofana has been in great form. And if he (Goodman) is not matching up with Wesley, it will be Aurelien Rougerie, so either way it's a fairly big ask for him.

"But he's been really positive since he's come into this environment and we're confident that he can do a big job.

"We wouldn't be renowned for having the biggest backline around. He's 98kg, he's very committed with the maths that he brings to the game."

Studying the maths for too long would upset even the calmest Leinster supporter's stomach.

Clermont have bullied their way to the zenith of this pool by averaging the most carries and gaining the most ground in the competition; yet Leinster's numbers offer comfort too.

Their defence is the steeliest – they have made 97pc of their tackles, with Jamie Heaslip predictably leading the way with an incredible 29 successful sacks, and none missed.

Last year, they required every one of their 123 tackles to emerge from a game for the ages; they may be required to do so again, perhaps arousing echoes of the infamous Bloodgate quarter-final against Harlequins back in 2009.

The late setback to Van der Merwe offers further upset, but if Leinster can emerge from here relatively unscathed, his expected return and those of utility pair Dave Kearney and O'Malley could be vital in the return encounter.

For this is not a one-off game and the away side, particularly, will be conscious of that. So too, in their own way, will Clermont, whose torturous history against Leinster may prompt them to anxiously chase an eight-point win, rather than merely the victory itself.

Two years ago, Morgan Parra's late hook allowed Leinster to escape with a bonus point before they skated home in the return leg; how Schmidt's men would love a repeat scenario.

"There are going to be times when our backs are against the wall," says Kevin McLaughlin. "But we're confident we can dig our way out of those situations."

Champions make a virtue of extricating themselves from binds such as these. This, one of this champion team's most formidable obstacles, will truly test their status.

Maybe reality will bite, hard. If so, Leinster must ensure they limit the damage. But they are not the only ones freighting doubts.

Even the irrepressible Parra spoke yesterday of Leinster as Clermont's "bete noire", their nemesis. Leinster's fear could be their greatest ally.

Verdict: Clermont

Clermont – L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; V Debaty, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, D Chouly. Reps: T Paulo, R Chaume, D Kotze, J Pierre, J Bardy, L Radosavljevic, D Skrela, R King.

Leinster – I Madigan; F McFadden, G D'Arcy, A Goodman, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Browne, K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, J McGrath, M Bent, D Toner, S Jennings, E Reddan, F Carr, A Conway.

Ref – N Owens (Wales).

Clermont v Leinster,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 3.0

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