Tuesday 16 January 2018

Leinster look to Boss to mow down French

Isaac Boss was the major surprise in the Leinster team when named at scrum half yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Isaac Boss was the major surprise in the Leinster team when named at scrum half yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

NOT long into yesterday's Leinster team announcement and press briefing, a member of the backroom staff entered the room and read out the Clermont Auvergne selection to coach Joe Schmidt, captain Leo Cullen and the assembled media.

It is a busy time of the year for list-readers, but the names on yesterday's list could not realistically be described as naughty or nice. Try scary.

Domingo, Scelzo, Privat, Bonnaire, Lauaki ... it was very much a case of roll out the barrels in the pack, while behind them, the names of Rougerie, Malzieu, Parra and James were further evidence of the rich seam of quality running through this Clermont squad.

And, just to hammer the point home, we have a bench containing household players such as Ledesma, Vermeulen, Lavea and Baby.

You do not have to resort to 'Allo 'Allo-style cliché to imagine the Gallic shrug of indifference that would greet the list of Leinster players if a similar scene was played out in Clermont. While every professional side conducts extensive analysis and background work before all big games, the names of Eoin O'Malley, Fergus McFadden, Sean O'Brien and Mike Ross are unlikely to register too strongly among the Clermont squad.

None of that quartet featured for Leinster in last April's epic quarter-final clash and it is hard to escape the impression that, with last season's Top 14 title infusing their squad with confidence and with the sense of security that comes with playing at their intimidating Stade Marcel-Michelin home, Clermont were not over-concerned with whatever Leinster side was named.

They will be driven by the need to put on a show for their supporters, by the desire to exact revenge for a quarter-final they left behind them seven months ago with Leinster expected to fulfil their designated role as sacrificial lambs.

Without their trio of Lions Tests stars in the backline, Schmidt's men have been written off by the bookies and French media, but the upside is that it takes the pressure off Leinster.

The other major factor in their favour is Schmidt's inside knowledge after three years at Clermont -- he knows these opponents backwards and will have hatched his plans accordingly.

With Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Eoin Reddan left on the bench in favour of Heinke van der Merwe, Nathan Hines and Isaac Boss, Schmidt has placed a tactical emphasis on bulk and there is a meaty look to the Leinster front five, essential to quell Clermont's power at scrum-time.

Boss is there to mow down the Clermont ball-carriers around the fringes and Schmidt has also given the New Zealand-born Irish international man-marking duties with regard to Clermont's, giant ex-All Black No 8 Sione Lauaki.

"Isaac knows Sione Lauaki pretty well, so he'll put a fair bit of pressure on at scrum time or when Lauki is going to carry, so that's pretty ideal for Isaac," said Schmidt.

"His kicking game has been really good and there's not a huge amount to choose between the half-backs, Eoin has had a bit of time in the Test match arena of late and it was great last week that we go 80 minutes for Eoin and we ill certainly see him during the game.

"Across the board, Clermont will be very, very physical so if we can be physical, across the board ... Isaac will obviously be part of that. He is a very feisty, strong character. He is a real competitor just as Eoin Reddan is as well.

"Eoin made two really decisive tackles against Scarlets last week, inside our '22', which were try-savers really. It is not a lack of faith in Eoin at all, it is more a little bit horses for courses and the fact that Isaac has been in the team environment with a little bit more continuity."

O'Malley has the daunting task of stepping into the boots of Brian O'Driscoll and there will be extra responsibility on his midfield partner Gordon D'Arcy, arguably in his richest vein of form since his breakthrough year as a centre in 2004. O'Malley has performed extremely well for Leinster this season and Schmidt believes the 22-year-old has the right attitude and ability to take on Clermont's backline heavyweights.

"One of his (O'Malley's) strengths is that he is physical," said Schmidt. "He's quite dynamic for a young guy, he's not massive, but what he has got he uses really well, he's quite tigerish on his feet when he's carrying the ball and he's a very strong defender. And those attributes will hopefully be to the fore.

"It will be a good challenge for him, can he handle Rougerie, can he handle Floch or Nalaga? I wouldn't put him out there if I didn't think he could. There are a host of names, but I'm confident he will handle whoever he has to make tackles on."

Schmidt was mildly surprised that Vern Cotter opted for Lioc Jacquet over Julien Pierre in the second-row and believes it is because the Clermont coach is focusing on line-outs and restarts as key contests tomorrow.

"The one surprise is that Julien Pierre isn't starting, Loic Jacquet is a really athletic second-row, very good in the air. I think they will look for him to get in the air early. He is also a very good line-out player, whereas Julien Pierre is more rugged and robust.

"It may hint how they intend to play. I think one of the things all teams are starting to realise is how important kick off receipt and sends are. I think Loic is certainly there for that reason. They will be looking to use him, Julien Bonnaire, Thibaut Privat and Alexandre Lapandry; they have really good line-out options there.


"They want to make sure their set- piece is very good so they can produce the volume of play that will put us under pressure if they can get their first phase right."

To have any chance of pulling off a victory that would rank alongside the quarter-final win in Toulouse in 2006 and 2009 semi-final win over Munster in the pantheon of Leinster's great European achievements, they have to win their first-phase ball.

Cullen, the line-out tactician and accomplished scrummager, is the driving force in this regard and highlighted the importance of tight-head Mike Ross when the sides pack down.

"I think our scrums have been going really well this year," said Cullen. "Since Rossy has got his chance, at the start of the season, he has revelled in being the leader of our front row, the leader of the scrum. He puts in a huge amount of time and work. I think he is really excited about the challenge this weekend. I'm sure everyone will row in behind him."

Clermont's Top 14 form this season has been mixed, they sit halfway down the league table with seven wins and six losses, but it is instructive that they have won all six of their home matches. They expect to win at home and, with the Heineken Cup a stated focus after ending their domestic agony last season, they expect to send Leinster packing tomorrow.

Leinster will need front-five solidity to provide a platform for Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien to get on the front foot, they will need Boss to make his tackles, Jonathan Sexton to kick his goals and D'Arcy, Isa Nacewa and Co execute Schmidt's innovation out wide.

A bit of assistance form referee Wayne Barnes would not go amiss either and if Leinster stay in the contest heading into the second half, the Clermont crowd will become tetchy which could transfer to indiscipline among the players. Leinster cannot travel with the stated intention of securing a losing bonus-point, but the reality is that it would constitute an extremely worthy achievement. Their task has been complicated by the fact that, one session in Skerries aside, Leinster have struggled to train properly during the cold snap.

"It has been difficult, but one thing we have focused on this week is our defence," said Schmidt.

"They can really damage you with the firepower they have, and it can happen very, very quickly."

Leinster will do their utmost to repel the early Clermont onslaught and, if they are successful, have the capacity to come away with that vital point.

Verdict: Clermont

CLERMONT -- A Floch, N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), G Williams/G Canale, J Malzieu, B James, M Parra, T Domingo, T Paulo, M Scelzo, L Jacquet, T Privat, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, S Lauaki. Reps: M Ledesma, L Faure, D Zirakashvili, J Pierre, E Vermeulen, K Senio, T Lavea, B Baby

LEINSTER -- I Nacewa, S Horgan, E O'Malley, G D'Arcy, F McFadden, J Sexton, I Boss, H Van Der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), N Hines, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: J Harris-Wright, C Healy, C Newland, D Toner, D Ryan, E Reddan, S Berne, D Kearney.

REF -- W Barnes (England).

Clermont v Leinster,

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