Friday 23 February 2018

Lansdowne expects – and champions will deliver

Schmidt wary of driven Clermont’s ‘firepower’ but Blues have class to triumph in make-or-break clash

Eoin Reddan (left) gets nod to start at scrum-half for Leinster today but Isaac Boss is also likely to play a part during the 80 minutes
Eoin Reddan (left) gets nod to start at scrum-half for Leinster today but Isaac Boss is also likely to play a part during the 80 minutes
Conor George

Conor George

Their impeccable record at Lansdowne Road, their much-lauded and balanced teamwork and their remarkable level of support from the stands all combine to suggest that it would be ludicrous to predict anything other than a home win today.

That said, this is possibly the biggest challenge Leinster will face this season – unless of course this pair meet again later in the competition!

Clermont are desperate to win the Heineken Cup. It is what motivates and drives them above all else.

Indeed, their commitment to the competition is such that they rested some of their marquee players for a recent Top 14 game against Toulouse, something that left their former backs coach Joe Schmidt aghast.

"That's something that wouldn't have been countenanced before Clermont won the Top 14 in 2010," said Schmidt.

"I remember in my first year with Clermont we drew the pool with Munster with 19 points. Munster went on to win the Heineken Cup that year. In the away game with Munster we made 14 changes to the team that had played in the Top 14 the previous weekend.

"Clermont hadn't won the Top 14 trophy, which has its origins in Clermont, in their 100-year existence. There was no interest in winning the Heineken Cup back then."

That has changed. Clermont are a team on a mission. Their semi-final loss to Leinster last season cut deep. Even before he left France for Dublin, Schmidt was aware of the growing obsession in Clermont with the 'H-Cup'.

"Now that they have won the Top 14 they are determined to win in Europe. Players like (Aurelien) Rougerie are driven to be the top team in Europe," he said.

"And they have plenty of firepower to get there. I think they're a super team."

It is an anomaly in their history that they have only reached the semi-finals of this competition once, despite having one of the largest budgets in the cash-rich French championship.

Clermont have quality right through their team and, according to Schmidt, playing away from home could be an advantage rather than a hindrance to them.

"I think their phenomenal home record (51 straight wins and counting) stifles them a little. They will play looser here and on a faster pitch. They are going to test us in every regard," he added.

For all their undoubted quality, though, Clermont couldn't make much headway in regard to clean line-breaks as Leinster's defence put in a massive shift last week.

Fergus McFadden, for example, made a crunching 12 tackles – missing none – while Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton were also in double figures for tackles made.

Much has been made, however, of the fact that Leinster have scored only one try in their three Heineken Cup games to date. That is a massive worry because their ability to cross the white-wash has been one of the main reasons for their European dominance in recent years.

But neither have they been conceding tries. Only one has been scored against them is this season's competition. Their defensive work has been magnificent.

They will, of course, be smarting after losing their 17-match unbeaten run in the competition last weekend.

Given the quality of the Clermont side, a four-try bonus-point win for Leinster is unlikely – though never say never – but any sort of victory would be a huge step towards earning one of the two 'best runners-up' spots at the very least.

In order to achieve that, Leinster will have to certainly replicate if not better last weekend's performance at the Stade Marcel Michelin.

The three lost line-outs and lost scrum will have been addressed in training this week. At this level of competition small margins tend to sway outcomes.

What is tremendously worrying from a Leinster perspective, though, is the free rein Clermont seemed to enjoy with ball in hand.

They failed to breach the defensive wall, but for a team to carry for over 400 metres – Leinster's carry was 274 metres – is astonishing.

If Clermont are given that sort of latitude and freedom on what is a faster and wide pitch they could cause havoc.

Clermont use centre Rougerie as their go-to carrier and his ability to offload in contact is, at times, mesmerising.

Those outside him, wings Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga in particular, often take fantastic lines off his shoulder, and when they power through at pace are next to impossible to stop.

Up front, the visitors are led by the abrasive Nathan Hines and will certainly ask questions of Leinster's defence, while their back-row, led by the formidable Julien Bonnaire, will seek out physical confrontation.

Leinster won't be found wanting in this facet. The likes of Sean O'Brien thrive on the physical, and Schmidt has made changes as he seeks a key to unlock the Clermont defence.

One change is enforced with Shane Jennings coming into the back-row. He slots in at openside, with O'Brien sliding across to take the unfortunate Kevin McLaughlin's No 6 shirt.

But, no matter the personnel, Leinster's back-row is one of their most potent weapons. They will seek to get the ball into the hands of O'Brien and Heaslip and have them punch through and create space.

If they can suck Clermont into committing numbers at the breakdown they could free up space outside for the elusive running of Isa Nacewa and Ian Madigan. Should that happen, Leinster will score tries.

There is almost a complete overhaul in the front-row. Heinke van der Merwe's selection at loosehead ahead of Cian Healy is a surprise, although with Richardt Strauss also coming in at hooker, Leinster's intentions are obvious – they are going to attack the French set-piece.

Schmidt and scrum coach Greg Feek obviously believe that Clermont are vulnerable, and the greater scrummaging power the South African and Ireland international will afford them here could be just what tips the balance Leinster's way.

Clermont will, again, rely heavily on their half-backs but the international pairing of Eoin Reddan and Sexton should weigh heavily in Leinster's favour in this battle. If dominance at half-back is supplemented by a solid platform in the set-piece Leinster will triumph.

This is a game Leinster cannot afford to lose. That is the crucial element of the contest. Their backs are to the wall in a competition they have dominated for the last three seasons.

Since 2000 they have failed to qualify for the knockout stage of the competition just three times (2000-01, 2003-04, 2007-08) but as well as lifting three titles they have also contested the semi-final on three other occasions.

Theirs is a proud tradition in European competition and they will not relinquish their crown easily at all. The Aviva expects. And Leinster will deliver.

Verdict: Leinster

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

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

REF – W Barnes (England)

Leinster v Clermont,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 3.40

Three things Leinster must do

1 Score tries

Leinster have scored just one try in three Heineken Cup outings. Clermont have scored 12. That differential is frightening. Clermont are expected to be a far more free-spirited outfit this weekend because the pressure of defending their home record will be off their shoulders. They will score tries. A four-try bonus-point win may be too much against such quality opposition but Leinster must cross the whitewash. Otherwise they're done.

2 Keep the penalties at a minimum

Morgan Parra and Brock James can kick the leather off a rugby ball. James had a horror show at the RDS a few years ago, but last weekend Parra kicked four from four in the first half and James added a drop-goal. Leinster kept them scoreless in the second half. This was primarily because they didn't give them penalty scoring opportunities. Their discipline has to be top notch for the full 80.

3 'If at first you don't succeed . . .'

Leinster left the game behind them last weekend. They were very close on a number of occasions to opening up the Clermont defence. They are getting into the right places but their final execution has been letting them down. This will come. And they have to take those chances. If they are patient and clued-in, the odds are they will make their chances count. They're too good a side not to.

Irish Independent

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