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Very best of enemies

THE best of friends make the worst of enemies.

That will certainly be the case when coaching card-sharks Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter put their enduring friendship to one side, for one match, to see whether Leinster or Clermont-Auvergne can qualify for the Heineken Cup final on Sunday week.

The bonus for qualification will be the burden of short-odds favouritism against either Ulster or Edinburgh for the Irish province which has made two and won two finals or the French club which has yet to make one.

Difficult

"If we are not as good as we can be it will be very, very difficult to beat Clermont as much as my good mate VC said during last week that we were almost unbeatable," said Schmidt.

"I think he is more talking about the way he plays cards. He has put out a couple of jokers there that are really just trying to make sure that he manages expectation on his behalf and also puts a bit more pressure on us."

Thus, Schmidt returns the serve with typical intelligence, making sure to acknowledge the difficulty in beating Clermont-Auvergne in Bordeaux, without opting for the get-out-of-jail card.

"There is massive pressure on us. There is massive expectation on the performances we are expected to deliver. No more so than the expectation we put on ourselves. We accept that," said Schmidt.

If Leinster are moving into the realm of 'unbeatable' - they are not - in the eyes of some, it is because of how Schmidt has pushed the boundaries in re-inventing a stalled attack in the past two seasons and developed real and tangible depth of quality and competition for places.

The Leinster environment is one of excellence, not just in aspirational terms but in actual everyday practice. The emphasis is on marrying style to substance.

Moreover, Schmidt has taken what he has learned in his homeland of New Zealand and then under Cotter's wing in France and put it into best practice in Dublin. He is not one to pick a bench and not make use of it.

The game plan is central to Schmidt's selection policy. He may feel that first-choice players can be better used in Bordeaux in the last half hour than the first hour.

He will have to decide on the merits of Sean Cronin against Richardt Strauss, Isaac Boss against Eoin Reddan, Kevin McLaughlin against Shane Jennings, Fergus McFadden against Gordon D'Arcy and Heinke van der Merwe against Cian Healy.

Schmidt will have to make a decision on whether to give his frontline players a hit out against Ulster at Ravenhill in the PRO12 League on Friday night or to hold them back for the clash in southwest France.

Medical

The likelihood is that Schmidt will move somewhere between these two stools, being guided by the medical staff and the players themselves.

The fact is that Leinster's obliteration of Edinburgh in the PRO12 on Friday night guarantees them a home semi-final and final.

Gearing up for the European Cup semi-final may mean backing down from a full-on confrontation with an in-form and improving Ulster at the end of the week.

There would seem to be more to be gained from giving the up-and-comers more game time than putting bodies on the line in Belfast, where the northerners are right on the border of PRO12 semi-final qualification.


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