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Leinster Rugby vs ASM Clermont Auvergne
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Sunday, 18th December 2010, 17:45

Television: Live: Sky Sports 1 Highlights: RTE2 22.00

Just six days after last Sunday's momentous clash in France, Leinster and Clermont need to dust themselves off and go out and do battle again. It was, once again, a fantastic game between the two sides. Clermont just about deserved their win but Leinster wouldn't have been too upset to escape with a precious losing bonus point. It was a wonderfully brave performance by the blues, especially considering the relatively callow team they had out in comparison to the mighty Jaunards line-up. That said, Leinster will know that with a bit more composure with the many chances they created they could have drawn or even won the match.

The young guns in the Leinster team won many plaudits in the post-match reaction. Fergus McFadden had another fine game on the wing, Dominic Ryan tackled fearlessly and Sean O'Brien was again a relentless ball carrier when he took over from the injured Jamie Heaslip at number eight. However Eoin O'Malley was perhaps the most impressive of them all. He was under huge pressure coming into the game with many predicting he's be destroyed by the massive Aurelien Rougerie. O'Malley responded with a performance of great heart and no little intelligence, showing great footwork and passing skills. It's sad that a cracked rib has ruled him out of tomorrow, but at least it shows Leinster they have another great prospect on the way up.

Clermont very rarely lose at home and having sampled the incredible atmosphere of the Stade Marcel-Michelin last week, you can see why. Their fans were simply fantastic; seemingly every last one combining to create a constant barrage of noise. In the past the travelling Leinster support have banded together to create more noise than the home support in France, this simply wasn't an option this time. At the end though, their fans couldn't have been more gracious or hospitable in the pubs and restaurants afterwards.

It would be nice to be taking them back to the RDS this week, purely in terms of knowing the atmosphere Leinster fans can generate there. However the decision was taken to move the fixture to the Aviva on financial grounds. To be fair, it's been marketed superbly and it looks like it will be a 45,000+ crowd, which is some achievement on the last Saturday before Christmas. The Clermont players will certainly be a lot happier not to have to return to the narrow confines of the RDS with the bad memories of the quarter-final defeat last April. However it will be up to every Leinster fan present to make as much noise as possible and really create a bear-pit out of the new stadium. The boys will be up against it and will need every bit of encouragement they can get.

The bonus point from last week will only matter if Leinster can back it up with a win this week. Unfortunately that task has become even tougher as last week was a case of 'another game, another set of injuries'. O'Malley's cracked rib and Jamie Heaslip's ankle injury mean Leinster go into this crucial match even more depleted. The great news is that we have a pretty decent replacement for O'Malley in a certain Brian O'Driscoll, who recovered from his jaw injury in remarkably quick time to be named at outside centre alongside Gordon D'Arcy. Heaslip has been named in the team but he's been bracketed with Dominic Ryan subject to a late fitness test, so it will be a case of waiting nervously to see if he actually takes the field.

There are a further two changes that aren't injury enforced as Eoin Reddan and Cian Healy come in for Isaac Boss and Heinke van der Merwe respectively. Both these positions have been rotated this season, so it's not a reflection on the performances of either van der Merwe or Boss last week, indeed the Kiwi scrum-half had his best game in a Leinster jersey so far. Reddan and Healy have to show they've earned the start and hopefully both will put in big performances, Reddan supplying quick ball and accurate passing and Healy fronting up in the scrums and cutting out the silly penalties he seems to give away each game.

Clermont coach Vern Cotter made some rather strange remarks after the first match about Leinster players not being respectful enough to Clermont. It's hard to remember where Leinster were so disrespectful and as his old friend Joe Schmidt suggested, it was more than likely just mind games to galvanise his own team. Because as invincible as they are at home, Clermont have shown on more than one occasion that they can be vulnerable on the road. They've lost seven of their eight away games this season. To this end, Cotter has named a very strong team with only three changes from last week.

Samoan Gavin Williams replaces Italian international Gonzalo Canale at inside centre in the only change to the backline. In the pack Georgian prop Davit Zirakashvili replaces the injured Martin Scelzo and in the second row Julien Pierre rotates with Loic Jacquet. Alexandre Lapandry is bracketed with the hugely experienced Alexandre Audebert at openside. In truth none of these changes weaken the team and in the case of Zirakashvili it could actually strengthen the scrum.

For all the deserved praise of Leinster's overall performance last week there were aspects of their play that the coaches will not have been happy with. The lineout struggled badly and the restarts were pretty disastrous, especially on the Clermont kick-offs. Both of these areas need to improve dramatically as will Leinster's finishing in the "kill-zone". Too often this season, Leinster have gotten down to the opposition five metre line, but have then left with no points. With the line in sight, too often Leinster resort to ponderous, one out forward moves which don't threaten the line and often actually take the ball backwards. They need to find a way to burrow over that line from short-range; Richardt Strauss could actually be an excellent try-poacher in this regard. With the quality of the Clermont defence, chances will be a precious commodity and they need to maximise their return from these if they want to win.

A defeat wouldn't be the end for Leinster in terms of their qualification chances but it would make things a hell of a lot more difficult, especially with a resurgent Racing Metro winning away to Saracens last week. Clermont will see this as a must-win game for their own chances of winning the group. In any case it's going to be another nerve-shredding occasion and as much as Leinster are up against it, you just get the feeling that they have in them to pull off a tight win.


Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
ASM Clermont Auvergne
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Anthony Floch
Shane Horgan
14 Napolioni Nalaga
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Aurelien Rougerie
Gordon D'Arcy 12 Gavin Williams
Fergus McFadden 11 Julien Malzieu
Jonathan Sexton 10 Brock James
Isaac Boss
9 Morgan Parra

Cian Healy 1 Thomas Domingo
Richardt Strauss
2 Ti'i Paolo
Mike Ross 3 Davit Zirakashvili
Leo Cullen (C) 4 Julien Pierre
Nathan Hines 5 Thibaut Privat
Sean O'Brien 6 Julien Bonnaire
Shane Jennings
7 Alexandre Lapandry / Alexandre Audebert
Jamie Heaslip / Dominic Ryan
8 Sione Lauaki

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Mario Ledesma
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Lionel Faure
Clint Newland
18 Clement Ric
Devin Toner 19 Julien Pierre
Dominic Ryan / Rhys Ruddock
20 Elvis Vermeulen
Isaac Boss
21 Benoit Baby
Shaun Berne 22 Kevin Senio
Dave Kearney 23 Taseva Lavea
Not Considered
due to Injury
Stan Wright,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Rob Kearney,
Andrew Conway,
Paul Ryan,
Eoin O'Malley

Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU),
Assistant Referees: Tim Hayes, Hugh Watkins (both WRU),
4th Official: Brian MacNeice (IRFU),
5th Official: Barry O'Keeffe (IRFU)
TMO: Derek Bevan (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-12-17