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Leinster Rugby vs ASM Clermont Auvergne
RDS Showground, Dublin
Friday, 9th April 2010, 20:00

Television: Live: Sky Sports 1, Highlights: RTE2 23:45

It's been five years since Leinster last hosted a Heineken Cup quarter-final. In that match, Leinster succumbed meekly to Leicester (the 29-13 score-line probably flattered the home team if anything) in front of a fairly quiet crowd of 48,000 in Lansdowne Road. It was Declan Kidney's last game in charge of Leinster and a largely unheard of Australian, Michael Cheika, replaced him the following season.

Now in his final season in charge, Cheika was pleased to finally bring a Heineken Cup quarter-final to Dublin after going on the road three times in the last four years. In his five seasons in charge Leinster has changed beyond recognition in virtually every aspect of the organisation. The fan base has grown, got organised and become far more vocal both at home and abroad. The Branch has become more professional in commercial terms and in marketing the team to the widest possible audience.

Most satisfying of all for Cheika though is how the squad has been transformed from an inconsistent and somewhat divided group into a cohesive, battle-hardened, ultra-professional unit. This was illustrated by their reaction to last week's fine win against Munster, Leinster's first victory in Thomond Park in fifteen years. There was little or no celebration amongst the players as the focus immediately switched to tomorrow's match. After beating Munster in the RDS in October, Leinster perhaps enjoyed the plaudits a bit too much and turned in a poor performance the following week against London Irish. The players seem determined not to repeat this mistake.

Despite the comforts of home, both the coach and the team are under no illusions about the task that awaits them tomorrow evening. Clermont are one of the most complete teams in the game. They've got quality players in every position and are capable of playing fantastic attacking rugby or grinding out wins through their mighty pack.

Leinster played them twice before in the pool stages of 2002-03 season when they were called Montferrand. In fact their first meeting was historic for Leinster as the 23-20 win was their first ever success in France in the competition. Leinster followed that up with a tense 12-9 win in Donnybrook a week later but the two sides haven't crossed paths since.

Montferrand changed their name to 'Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne' the following year and endured a couple of fallow seasons before coming back to form in the last four years. They spent a lot of money on recruitment and were good enough to reach the final of the Top 14 for the last three years running, however they lost on each occasion.

For the past two seasons in the Heineken Cup they were drawn in tough groups and failed to qualify for the knock-out stages despite some terrific performances, including beating Munster twice. So this is their first quarter-final in eight years and they will be determined to make the most of it.

They've named a very strong team, despite a few injury concerns. The big news is that their star Fijian winger, Napolioni Nalaga, misses out due to a knock picked up in last week's defeat away to Stade Francais. He is one of the best finishers in the game and will be a big loss. However such is the strength of their squad that they can still name an all-international back three in Anthony Floch, Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu. Rougerie moves to the wing from outside centre which means South African Marius Joubert starts there instead alongside experienced Italian international Gonzalo Canale. It's a big, quick three-quarter line that will be supplied by possibly the finest half-back partnership in the competition in Morgan Parra and Brock James.

Parra was one of the main reasons France won the Six Nations Championship with his place-kicking and all-round play. He is still a young man though and can be immature at times, especially when he decided to label the Ireland team as 'cheaters' in the build-up to their clash. Those comments may come back to haunt him tomorrow. Australian Brock James partners him and it remains one of the mysteries of the game that a player this talented remains uncapped. James is simply one of the most complete out-halves around. He's a superb place-kicker, a dangerous runner and an excellent passer of the ball. His defence is strong and he has an ability to knock over drop goals whenever the fancy takes him. In short he's a serious operator and one of the main men Leinster need to shut down tomorrow evening.

It's an excellent backline but their pack is arguably even more impressive. It's leader is the seemingly ageless Argentinean hooker Mario Ledesma. Loosehead Thomas Domingo is a pocket battleship who was the best prop in the Six Nations and tighthead Davit Zirakashvili is a typically strong Georgian scrummager. Canadian James Cudmore is an abrasive presence in the second row where he partners French international Thibaut Privat. The backrow is another quality unit with Julien Bonnaire, Alexandre Lapandry and number eight Elvis Vermeulen all French internationals. Bonnaire, in particular, is a class act who can be very effective in the lineout. Their scrum is very strong, as is their maul and their pick and drive game is a consistent source of tries.

So all in all, Clermont are a fine team and a daunting prospect. However, they are far from unbeatable, especially away from home. They have lost eight times in the French championship this season, seven of those defeats on the road. In their Heineken Cup group matches they lost away to Leicester and the Ospreys and defensively they have been a little porous, conceding eleven tries in their six pool matches compared to the six conceded by Leinster. Perhaps most importantly they lack experience of being in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup and the pressure and intensity that comes with it. We've seen countless examples of teams playing brilliantly in the group stages but then freezing when it really counts, so it will be interesting to see how they react.

Leinster have massive respect for Clermont but they will still fancy their chances at home, especially if they can repeat the fantastic defensive effort they produced against Munster last weekend. Other aspects of that performance will have to improve though, most notably their discipline and their converting of try-scoring opportunities. To that end, their chances have improved massively with the news that Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan have been declared fit enough to return to the starting line-up. Horgan comes in for Girvan Dempsey, who drops to the bench and O'Driscoll replaces Fergus McFadden who is very unlucky to drop out of the match day squad altogether.

In the pack, Kevin McLaughlin is another to return from injury to reclaim his place at blindside flanker. This means that Nathan Hines reverts back to his more familiar position in the second row, replacing Devin Toner. The rest of the pack is unchanged, which means that Cian Healy has to be content once again with a place on the bench.

It's the strongest team that Leinster have named since the London Irish match in Twickenham and they will need to be at their best tomorrow night. Hopefully the Leinster crowd at the RDS will get behind them and create a real cauldron of noise. It will be tough but hopefully Leinster will just have enough to see them into the semi-finals.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
ASM Clermont Auvergne
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Anthony Floch
Shane Horgan 14 Aurelien Rougerie (C)
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Marius Joubert
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Gonzalo Canale
Isa Nacewa 11 Julien Malzieu
Jonathan Sexton
10 Brock James
Eoin Reddan
9 Morgan Parra

Stan Wright
1 Thomas Domingo
John Fogarty
2 Mario Ledesma
CJ van der Linde
3 Davit Zirakashvili
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Jamie Cudmore
Nathan Hines
5 Thibaut Privat
Kevin McLaughlin
6 Julien Bonnaire
Shane Jennings 7 Alexandre Lapandry
Jamie Heaslip
8 Elvis Vermeulen

Replacements Bernard Jackman
16 Benoit Cabello
Mike Ross
17 Vincent Debaty
Cian Healy
18 Clement Ric
Malcolm O'Kelly
19 Julien Pierre
Stephen Keogh
Alexandre Audebert
Paul O'Donohoe
21 Kevin Senio
Shaun Berne
22 Gavin Williams
Girvan Dempsey
23 Wesley Fofana

Not considered
due to injury
Luke Fiztgerald
Sean O'Brien
Ian McKinley
 Jason White
Napolioni Nalaga
Lionel Faure
Martin Scelzo
Benoit Baby
Seremaia Bai

Match Officials

Referee: Dave Pearson (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (RFU), Stuart Terheege (RFU)
4th Official: Greg Garner (RFU)
5th Official: Bruce Robertson (RFU)
TMO: Geoff Warren (RFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-04-09