Remi Lamerat v Robbie Henshaw is a collision course that will decide the game
Lamerat's battle with Henshaw is the Champions Cup clash of the season
Leinster against Clermont will be a game of quality that is set to be defined by two world-class operators in the centre. Robbie Henshaw will go head to head with Remi Lamerat, and it is a match-up that pits two very different players against each other.
No game can be won without forward dominance, but you also need guys in the three-quarters to deliver the points. In the sunshine of Lyon, whoever wins the battle of the midfield will either finish off the other team, backing up their forward power, or help swing a game back in favour of the team that is under the cosh up front.
Henshaw and Lamerat are that good, and the arrival of both these players at their clubs at the start of the season transformed them into genuine contenders for the title.
Henshaw is the poster boy. His opening Champions Cup game for Leinster, at home to Castres in round one, told us the impact he would have and that he was a British & Irish Lion in the making.
He was Herculean in Chicago for Ireland against New Zealand, and put in one of the most incredible shifts you are likely to see from a defensive player; then he was excellent in Dublin in March to deny England. That day he stamped his authority on the midfield, becoming one of the few players who has stared down Owen Farrell and not blinked.
He is a player who has the look of Scott Gibbs, with his warthog style, the way he stays low to the ground, his bulging muscles, fast leg speed, and a mean streak that seems to scream: 'Thou shalt not pass'.
Fizzing When he carries, he carries like he means it, and luckily the boy can also pass. He can drop it short, in and around contact, and he can see space in the wide channels, fizzing the balls to his full-back or wing, flat in trajectory and offering speed of transfer. This makes him difficult to defend against. He provides both threats and because of this, a defence has to stay very square on him or he will bust an outside arm, or trample through a soft inside shoulder.
This means that, as a collective defence, you have to tuck in a little tighter, narrowing the line, and creating space outside. Added to this, Henshaw can kick, even if it is just the classic drop punt, and he is able to deliver them on the run, with excellent accuracy. When another of his team members sticks one up, Henshaw's kick-chase is excellent.
He also has pace. Against Wasps in the quarter-final, Elliot Daly hacked clear and Willie le Roux and Joe Simpson hared after it. It was a long kick downfield, and when Henshaw turned to cover, trouble loomed. But Le Roux and Simpson never closed a yard on him.
This is one of the reasons he provides an interesting selection option for Warren Gatland. Where previously you would not have looked beyond Jonathan Joseph, Daly or Garry Ringrose for the 13 slot, because of his wheels and classic outside arc and the selection of Gatland's centre options, Henshaw could be the 13. Gatland could now consider an option of Sexton, Farrell, and Henshaw in his midfield.
Against him tomorrow will be one of the most underrated players in northern hemisphere rugby. Lamerat is not spectacularly quick, or built like an outhouse - and is certainly no poster boy. In fact, he is almost everything Henshaw isn't.
And yet he is equally as influential and has become the rock in the middle of the Clermont team, the player that has provided the mongrel in the midfield.
Lamerat's signing convinced me to jump on the Clermont betting bandwagon once again, having abandoned my favourite team for a couple of years. Such is this man's quality, integrity, grit and bloody-mindedness, he was the perfect antidote to Clermont's flimsiness in the business end of the competition.
Sometimes a jigsaw needs the final piece. Well, Lamerat is that piece. His ability to "empty his tank" time and again is worth watching in itself. The ground he covers to look after his mates in defence - waiting until the ball has moved on from his pal's channel in the slot next to him, then heading off to look for work round the back and always able to drop back into his channel if the team switch back to where he was - is remarkable.
Jonny Wilkinson used to do it, Farrell does it, and Lamerat does it every week. His close control passing is outstanding: on the short-side against Ulster in Belfast he had no right to catch the ball and give it in a blink of an eye to Scott Spedding who nipped in at the corner.
The rest of the time, he delivers what is needed, content with his role in the team. When he defends he is not dirty but it hurts every time. He is all elbows and knees, with a quick line-speed and an ability to tackle on both shoulders. He is everything I wasn't and I love him for it.
In the rain, the quarter-final against arch-rivals Toulon was tight at 9-9. Clermont made ground up the left, and they needed something. Lamerat carried, was tackled but not held, rose again, and tackled again. He judo-rolled with no care for what he or his face might meet as they came into contact with an opponent. He made crucial yards, the ball was recycled and Noa Nakaitaci scored to break the game for Clermont.
At Twickenham, against England, he was penalised for continuing to move forward when held in the tackle. It was a terrible decision. He wasn't held and he knew it.
This is a man who prides himself on the second thrust, the ability to go again. This fighting spirit means he is exceptional at the breakdown, with his strength and ability to get into awkward positions.
And if you want to know why any coach or supporter would love him you need to look no further than the game between Clermont and Ulster in the pool stages. Charles Piutau had a two-on-two, with no right to score, and sold the most outrageous dummy as he crabbed across the field to his only support runner.
As he set off, Lamerat spotted the danger from 50 yards away and set off. It was a lost cause, but he overtook the great Wesley Fofana on the way to get to his man, arriving just as Piutau scored. Lamerat never quits, he never ever stops coming at you, carrying, tackling, cajoling, hassling, motivating, imploring.
Henshaw is not one to step off either: there is a collision coming. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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