Monday 18 December 2017

O'Driscoll return can lift Leinster

Heaslip faces late fitness test as Schmidt's blue battlers prepare for 'Le Crunch, Part Deux' against Clermont

ASIDE from the satisfaction derived from being present to witness a seismic rugby occasion and, in the circumstances, one the of the most commendable away performances by an Irish province in Europe, it was a pleasure to bump into a rugby hero in Clermont last weekend.

Well, 'bump into' is not factually correct, 'step out of the way of' is more accurate and the usual reaction of most people when they see Olivier Merle heading in their direction.

For those who don't remember Merle, he was the monstrous Clermont second-row who won 45 caps for France in the 1990s, including four wins against Ireland.

Merle was circus big, six foot six and 20 stone and, with an arse the size of Mitchelstown, was one of the most powerful scrummagers in the game. Given his size, the introduction of legalised lifting in the line-out in 1995 did not suit him and he won his last cap in 1997.

enforcer

One of the great enforcers, Merle's successors in the Clermont second-row may not be quite in the same league, but they are not far off.

If Leinster coach Joe Schmidt opted for bulk last weekend, and was rewarded by hugely physical performances from Heinke van der Merwe, Nathan Hines and Isaac Boss, his former colleague Vern Cotter has taken the same approach to today's rematch, restoring Julien Pierre to the engine room ahead of the two stone lighter Loic Jacquet.

He has lost the considerable bulk of Puma tight-head Martin Scelzo to injury, but grizzly Georgian Davit Zirakashvili is not exactly a Morris dancer himself and, arguably, a better scrummager.

He represents a massive threat to Cian Healy, restored to the loose-head side ahead of Van der Merwe, but Healy is having a good season and, while impetuosity sometimes got the better of him last Sunday, the Clontarf man's energy and effectiveness in contact also impressed.

Eoin Reddan comes in at scrum-half and while Boss was excellent in last weekend's horses for courses selection, the Limerick man carries a significant attacking threat if he is provided with decent possession.

The greatest scrutiny is inevitably on the return of Brian O'Driscoll to the midfield and, after being caught unawares by Eoin O'Malley last weekend, Aurelien Rougerie and his centre partner Gavin Williams (another Clermont change based on muscularity rather than silkiness) will be on edge whenever O'Driscoll is in possession.

They will also, along with their back-row ball-carriers such as Sione Lauaki, attempt to test out O'Driscoll's recovery from his jaw injury, but the Ireland captain has seen it all before, and is well used to being singled out for special attention.

Jamie Heaslip's inclusion, pending a fitness test today, is also a massive boost with the excellent Dominic Ryan on standby should the No 8 not recover from his ankle injury.

There was plenty of back play to admire last weekend and Leinster's policy of not inviting Clermont's threat-laden back three to run back at them through over-use of the boot was tactically astute. However, Schmidt knows that his men will have to front up again in the set-pieces, tackle, and breakdown if they are to secure the victory they crave.

"We did some really good defensive work on some of their key ball carriers like Laukai and Rougerie, I thought our set-piece was good and again we would try to step that up," said Schmidt.

"We felt we missed a couple of line-outs that may have given us a good launching pad to have another crack at them, but the scrum was very sound and we are pretty confident that we can maybe take that another step.

"Cian Healy is starting and he is very, very motivated to do a good job. He has freshened up after the Autumn Series, so we are hopeful that that would be even better than it was last week.

"All those areas have to be even better because Clermont will be doing their homework and getting angry, getting motivated to come over and really physically take us on at the set-pieces and at contact as well," he added.

"I thought we were pretty professional at ruck-time. We stayed on our feet really well and that is crucial. Finally, I suppose from our launch points, our back-line play was relatively competent and Brian can add a little bit of mystery for them in that area this week."

Conquer

Clermont have never won in Ireland and their record on the road in the Top 14 this season, one victory from seven outings, is less than impressive. However, the French champions arrive with extra determination this time, knowing that defeat today will spell the end of their stated ambition to conquer Europe and Schmidt is not reading too much into their away woes.

He insisted: "They haven't travelled so well this year but a lot of teams don't tend to travel so well in the Top 14, but when they really target games they go there and get their results, as a rule. They do pick and choose a bit the French, but I think they have chosen us, without doubt."

It is shaping up, once again to be the game of the weekend. The presence of O'Driscoll and Heaslip, if he comes through the warm-up, is hugely significant, psychologically as much as anything else.

Clermont are in the better nick, but, away from home, there are frailties that Leinster can exploit if they replicate last week's intensity and improve their finishing. The French will bring a Merle-like physicality, but a bumper crowd will have a role to play in what should be another magnificent occasion and could just spur the home side to a, narrow, home victory.

Verdict: Leinster

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

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

REF -- N Owens (Wales).

Leinster v Clermont,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 5.45

Irish Independent

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