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Road ahead is paved Bleu

Leinster will have to put one over Josef Schmidt -- their successor to Michael Cheika for next season -- if they are to move to within touching distance of retaining their Heineken Cup title in their quarter-final on the second weekend in April.

New Zealander Schmidt will plot the downfall of the champions in his present incarnation as assistant -- or backs -- coach to Vern Cotter at big-spending, multi-talented Clermont-Auvergne in what promises to be a pyrotechnic tussle at either the RDS or Croke Park.

It is yet another shot at achievement for the innovative Kiwi double act as they strive to give Clermont and their success-deprived supporters what they have craved for so long -- a trophy for their empty cabinet.

"That will be a special game for Joe! It is a big challenge for Clermont-Auvergne to face the title holders," said Cotter. "At this level of the competition, there are only very big teams remaining; like Leinster, Munster and Toulouse. We expect a game of huge intensity in an unbelievable atmosphere," he added.

In truth, the prospect of Leinster-Clermont brings the likelihood of an attack-filled bonanza of flowing rugby between two teams designed to play a ball-in-hand, high-tempo style.

The psychological mind games have already begun before a break for the Six Nations that could cripple -- through injury -- or enhance -- through the form of the individuals -- the chances of most of the eight quarter-finalists.

"First up for us is Clermont. If we can get past them then we will start looking at the challenge of facing either Toulouse or Stade Fran├žais," said Leinster's talismanic captain Leo Cullen.


"The quality of the teams left in the Heineken Cup is just unbelievable, and this season the French teams have really hit back with their teams winning four of the six pools.

"It has brought a French feel to the tournament and you have to say they are looking pretty formidable, particularly with the prospect for them of playing in the final in Paris in May."

No doubt, the lure of Paris has injected a fierce surge of adrenalin to the commitment, especially on the road, of the French clubs in what is often a competition they can either take or leave with a very Gallic shrug of the shoulders.

It is no coincidence that the driving engines of the absence of a salary cap in the French Top-14 championship, moving the transfer power base across the Channel from England, and the allure of the Paris final have combined to turn the French from moody to, at times, magnificent. In basic financial terms, European Rugby Cup Limited, the tournament organisers, crave a French involvement in the final. It will guarantee a full-house and an attendant atmosphere to boot.

It seems likely that Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson, in consultation with Cheika, will manoeuvre to move Leinster across the River Liffey to Croke Park in order to maximise the financial benefits of the hometown appointment.

There was more than a whiff of French smugness at the semi-final draw as former Toulouse captain Emile N'Tamack drew the winners of his club and Stade Francais to have the comfort of home advantage over the victors of Leinster and Clermont.

It means the champions will have to break the hearts of half of the Gallic qualifiers to make it all the way back to the final. It is a test of character that will suit Leinster's recently discovered knack for confounding the odds.

Cheika will have to wait with bated breath for his key players, like Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip, to survive the torrid drain on physical and psychological energy that is the Six Nations.

Looking ahead, it took one swish of Sexton's right boot to show Declan Kidney one of the few areas where Ronan O'Gara held a possible advantage over his adversary is no more.


In almost a mirror image of O'Gara's nerveless riposte to Stephen Jones in the Grand Slam decider, Sexton torpedoed London Irish with a clutch drilling of a 40m drop goal to give Leinster a somewhat lucky, break-even draw (11-11) at Twickenham.

It is a sign from the Gods that Sexton is ready to continue the transformation as Ireland's outright out-half. O'Gara has been the standard bearer. He is not yet a spent force.

But, Sexton represents the Six Nations present and future of Irish the rugby.

The Leinster fly-half could be forgiven for pushing a wide smile across his face as the saviour of a coveted home quarter-final for the Heineken Cup. When the circumstances demanded a hero, he thrashed a low trajectory drop goal through the posts.

The key question has been answered: "Who would you want, O'Gara or Sexton, standing up to a pressure cooker kick to gut England?" Either one would do quite nicely, thank you very much.

After that, Leinster will have to be at their lacerating best to shrivel the ambitions of Clermont and either Toulouse or Stade Francais on the road to Paris.

There is nothing left to say, until early April, other than -- Allez Les Bleus.