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You're looking at 50-50 contest - Hines

LEINSTER will be wary of Clermont-Auvergne on Sunday - very wary.

The reigning European champions would have witnessed what happened to Barcelona against Chelsea on Tuesday evening. The message is clear: never, ever take anything for granted.

Of course, this simply can't happen at Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux as a revamped and rebooted Clermont go about reaping revenge for the 2010 Heineken Cup quarter-final and that rather comprehensive dressing down at The Aviva Stadium last season.

Former Ireland wing Shane Horgan has made a strong case for the long-term retention of Leinster's "best players", most notably the rejuvenated Luke Fitzgerald, whose contract negotiations are still stalled, and Auckland wonder Isa Nacewa.

The Irish Rugby Football Union has to make a decision. Are Leinster going to stay at the top of the club game in Europe by keeping and attracting the best players or are they going to become a selling club?

The latter choice would undoubtedly lead to a deterioration in profile, success and income revenue for the IRFU. They have a 'branch brand' that must be treated with care and proper attention.

For instance, retired Scotland international lock Nathan Hines wanted to stay at Leinster last season. He argued for a two-year contract. He was offered one and was quickly gone.

Haunt

The short-sighted nature of the decision to allow a second row with a unique set of skills, perfectly designed for 'The Leinster Way', may just come back to haunt the club in Bordeaux, even though this indirectly led to the import of Brad Thorn as a redeeming three-month stop-gap.

"Leinster are pretty much the same team as last season and I think the teams are quite similar with effective forwards and good back rows," remarked Hines.

"On paper you're looking at a 50-50 game. If we wanted to go far in Europe we knew one time or another we would have to cross paths."

In truth, Clermont have gained what Leinster have lost in Hines and the French club has also acquired home-grown internationals in fly-half David Skrela and hooker Benjamin Kayser, Wales full-back Lee Byrne and a pair of All Blacks in centre Regan King and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu.

This could be the investment, way above and beyond what Leinster can afford, that takes Clermont to the next level in order to battle sucessfully for domestic and European honours.

Already, they are joint top of the French Top-14 League with Toulouse, a country mile ahead of the chasing pack. Like Leinster, they are as good as guaranteed a home semi-final and can ease back in the League so that they can attack Europe with venom.

While Leinster remain mainly the same squad with Thorn stepping into Hines' shoes and Sean Cronin applying heavy pressure to Richardt Strauss, full-back Rob Kearney has returned from a long-term injury that wrecked last season and Fitzgerald is really fizzing now.

Stellar

This provides the added comparative value of two new signings, along with the definite development of lock Devin Toner, the solid impact of tight-head Nathan White and the stellar consistency of flanker Kevin McLaughlin.

Leinster were not able to invest in the instant gratification of a clutch of big-name signings. By and large, they have had to make-do with what they had on the roster.

But, they are in the second season of Joe Schmidt's three-year tenure and there has been a clear improvement in the players' understanding of what he wants and how to make it happen.

Clermont-Auvergne have better players this season. Leinster are a better team this season.

Hines is right.

It really is "50-50".


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