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ASM Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster Rugby
Stade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont,
Sunday, 9th December, 2012, 16:00 (local time)

Ever since the draw for this season's Heineken Cup was made, this was the game supporters of both ASM and Leinster were looking forward to the most.As with two years ago Leinster and Clermont meet in a double-header that will go a long way towards deciding the winners of the pool. Like then, Leinster will play away first on the Sunday and follow up with the 'Christmas Match' at the Aviva Stadium the following Saturday.

The big difference is that last time Leinster took a four point lead into the first match courtesy of Clermont losing away to Racing Metro. So even though Leinster lost in the Stade Marcel-Michelin, the bonus point they earned kept them ahead of Clermont in the table. This season Clermont have looked like a team possessed in Europe and they're the only team with a maximum ten points from the first two rounds. They're also the leading try-scorers in the cup so far with twelve tries, six in each game. If we didn't already know that Clermont were super-focused on Europe this season the fact that they rested most of their front-liners for last week's Top14 game against champions Toulouse says it all. This would have been unthinkable only two seasons ago.

Clermont want European success badly and if they can do it by causing Leinster some pain along the way, well that will only make it sweeter for them.No one has suffered at the hands of Leinster quite as much as Clermont in the last few years. Three seasons ago, Leinster beat them in that epic quarter-final in the RDS that Clermont really should have won. Two seasons ago, Leinster followed up the defeat in Clermont by beating them well in the Aviva in a match that effectively decided the group. Then last season, Clermont thought they'd finally get some payback when they drew Leinster in a semi-final on home turf in Bordeaux. In an epic match Leinster squeezed through by the smallest of margins as Wesley Fofana just failed to ground the ball near the end.

As Leinster went on to win their third Heineken Cup in Twickenham, Clermont sought comfort in their domestic league but they couldn't revive themselves enough and they lost a dour semi-final to Toulon to finish the season empty-handed. The net effect seems to be that they're fully focused on Europe this season and while their form at home has been decent enough and they should still get a top-four finish, it's in Europe that they've really shone.

For once Clermont were fairly quiet on the transfer front in the summer bringing in only three players. However the three they brought in were all top quality. Hard-carrying number eight Damien Chouly arrived from Perpignan and he's refreshed their back row options. New Zealand centre Benson Stanley was signed from Auckland and he gives them yet another quality option in midfield. Perhaps the most welcome signing though was that of prolific Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga, who was scoring tries for fun for Clermont until family issues saw him leave the club in early 2011. He's back now after a spell with the Western Force in Australia and he's quickly gotten back to his old ways with eight tries in eleven games since his return including three in the first two pool matches in Europe.

Last week Leinster had a fairly rudimentary win over a spirited but limited Zebre team. However it was no kind of preparation for the intensity that they'll face when they walk out to a wall of noise on Sunday. The Clermont fans are consistently the noisiest fans in European rugby and though the travelling Leinster fans will undoubtedly try their best, it's near impossible to make a dent in that din. Though massively passionate in their support of their side the Clermont fans are also some of the most sporting fans and a terrific camaraderie has developed between the two sets of supporters over the last three seasons. When the Leinster travelling support marched to the stadium for the semi-final in Bordeaux, the welcome they received all along the route from the Jaunard fans was simply awesome. It is a memory that will never be forgotten by the Leinster fans who were lucky enough to be there.

However friendship will be put to one side for eighty minutes as the supporters urge their teams to tear into each other. As tough as task as it will be, however, Leinster certainly won't be over-awed. In fact they can look to their own performance from two years ago for inspiration. That day Leinster arrived with an in-experienced, injury-hit team but they played some superb rugby, shocking the locals with the style of their play. But for a few loose passes and one or two home-town refereeing decisions Leinster could have won that game.

Clermont are looking to extend their winning run at home to 51 games and they would hate Leinster to be the team to break that run. So far Leinster's form in Europe hasn't been great but they've been adept in the past at raising their game for the big match. They will certainly need to up their performance considerably to have any chance of getting anything from the match this Sunday. The first twenty minutes will be crucial as both packs will rip mercilessly into each other with both teams knowing how important it is to get a solid start. If Leinster can get off to a good start they know Clermont can get frustrated and distracted. However if Clermont get off to a good start, Leinster know they have the artillery in the backline to really do a number on them.

It's the stand-out game in a weekend of mouth-watering clashes and the games between these two teams always live up to the hype. Leinster will go all out to get a historic win, but if they play well and can snag a bonus point whilst denying Clermont one, it will be a decent days work.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-12-07

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