Battle will be won or lost on front lines - Reddan
Leinster scrum-half expecting intense forward clash, writes Hugh Farrelly
THE media build-up to Sunday's daunting Heineken Cup assignment in Clermont will revolve around the absence of marquee names in Leinster's backline but Eoin Reddan knows where this battle will be won and lost.
It may be overly simplistic to state that a scrum-half is only as good as the pack in front of him (Terry Holmes and Michael Bradley forged formidable reputations on the back foot) but a No 9's life undoubtedly becomes a lot easier when his forwards provide him with a solid platform.
Leinster will definitely be without Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald and, in all probability, Brian O'Driscoll out also but, even without that exalted trio of Ireland and Lions internationals, coach Joe Schmidt still has enough talent in his squad to pull off a famous victory over his former club if -- and it's a big if -- they can do a job up front.
A glance through the Clermont squad which accounted for Heineken Cup champions Toulouse in their domestic tussle at the weekend testifies how intimidating a prospect that is.
Lionel Faure, Davit Zirakashvili, Thomas Domingo, Mario Ledesma, Thibaut Privat and Loic Jacquet are grizzly front-five names which roll off the tongue, with Puma tight-head Martin Scelzo also ready to come into the equation this weekend.
It adds up to a scrum capable of destroying Leinster's ambitions at source -- as happened on the Irish province's last trip to France for their Heineken Cup semi-final when Toulouse's 26-16 victory was founded on complete scrummaging superiority. Reddan played that afternoon and coped as well as he was allowed to with his pack collapsing back on top of him. The Limerick man also had a similar experience a month ago for Ireland against South Africa.
The IRB may be looking to turn rugby's defining set-piece into a league-style restart rather than a proper bullying tool but no one has told Clermont and, with English referee Wayne Barnes more likely to adhere to more old-school scrum values than his southern colleagues, Leinster have reason to be fretful.
The visitors will recall the huge pressure they were put under by Clermont at the RDS last season, when Leinster scraped through an epic quarter-final, and Reddan agrees that the scrum represents a major challenge on Sunday.
"Spot on. The scrum is going to be massive," said Reddan. "The last time they came over here they did a bit of damage to us. Both the quarter-final and the semi-final of the European Cup last year were a bit of a watershed for us as a team.
"I know it sounds a bit weird but we realised the team needed to help the forwards as much as possible and maybe allow the back-row scrummage a bit longer, adjust the way we defend so you have a full eight-man scrum for longer and take the onus away from a good scrum just being on the front-row.
"The whole forward unit has worked very hard. We are going down to a very tough place to scrummage this weekend, but our scrum has definitely improved since we played them last year and this will be a big challenge and a very important part of the game."
The general consensus is that Leinster will do extremely well to get out of Clermont with a losing bonus point but Reddan reckons travelling with that attitude could play into the hands of the Top 14 champions.
"We will go down there to win and be positive and put a marker down," said Reddan vehemently. "Joe is quite a positive guy and he knows Clermont inside out. We will decide on how we are going to go after them.
"I've played in Clermont before and it was a very tough game. They finish very strong.
"They have a massive crowd and great supporters, very much like Leinster and Munster would have here. It is a great place to play."
That earlier trip to Clermont came in December 2007, when Reddan was still a Wasps player and part of the team that went down fighting on a 37-27 scoreline.
They managed to exact revenge the following weekend at home with a 25-24 win but were ultimately unable to escape from a group that also contained eventual champions Munster.
"We lost over there, again they finished very strong," he recalled. "They had a very experienced team that day and it showed; they were very clinical and very dangerous, especially from turnovers, the same way you'd expect any French side to be.
"It cost us dearly that year. So there's a lesson in that too, there's a lesson in Europe every season you don't win it and you have to bring all those lessons to the fore this weekend in order to get the win."
Like most French rugby hotbeds, the Stade Marcel-Michelin creates an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams and Reddan expects nothing less this weekend. However, the 30-year-old believes Barnes, who has refereed Leinster three times in the Heineken Cup -- to victories over Agen (2006), Toulouse (2008) and Scarlets (2009) -- believes the official will be impervious to pressure from the stands.
"Like any French crowd, if you are playing good rugby they can sometimes get behind you, which is a bit strange. It is a tough place to play and referees are under a lot of pressure down there.
"We have got Wayne Barnes which is probably good. He is very able to stand up to that hometown atmosphere and he is very experienced. All in all, the crowd will be a factor but it is one we are going to have to overcome."
Get on top up front and the crowd could well turn on their own -- over to forwards coach Jono Gibbes, scrum coach Greg Feek and the Leinster pack.