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ASM Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster Rugby,
Stade Marcel-Michelin, Montferrand,
Sunday, 12 December 2010, 16:00 (15:00 Irish Time)

Television: Live: Sky Sports 2 (Interactive), Highlights: RTE2 21:00

Leinster face a daunting trip to France this Sunday for a crucial Heineken Cup tie against Clermont. Having won their first two pool matches, Leinster are in good shape going into their 100th European match. However they know the results of this match and next weeks return in the Aviva stadium will go a long way towards deciding who wins this 'group of death'.

Leinster have only played Clermont three times in their history and they have won each time. Back in 2002, when Clermont still played under the name Montferrand, Leinster earned their first ever victory on French soil when they won a thrilling game 23-20. A week later they beat them 12-9 in the return in Donnybrook, a dour arm-wrestle of a match. They had to wait eight years before they faced each other again and that was last April in the RDS.

That epic quarter-final that was one of the greatest games in the history of the tournament. The sense of occasion was hugely enhanced by the 3,000-strong travelling Clermont support, who represented their team with great pride and brought incredible noise and colour to the match. It was a fantastic game that ebbed and flowed back and forth before Leinster just squeezed home by a point, 29-28. Much was made of Clermont's poor kicking and the way out-half Brock James missed two late drop goal attempts that would have won the game. Clermont went on from that game to finally win their first ever French Championship, after previously losing in ten finals. However, they still look back at the game in the RDS as one that got away.

So when Leinster was drawn in their group this season, this would have been the first fixture the Clermont players went looking for. They really want to set the record straight in this match and they warmed up nicely with a 32-25 win over Toulouse last weekend. It was a welcome return to form for them after what had been an inconsistent season so far. Some have said that the celebrations from winning the Bouclier de Brennus have been so extensive that it actually affected the team. They're actually in 7th place in the Top 14 table at the moment having lost six of their games, all away from home.

They didn't start their Heineken Cup campaign as well as they would have liked either. They beat Saracens at home but didn't secure a bonus point and then coach Vern Cotter sent an under strength team to Racing Metro 92 and they duly lost 16-9. So at the moment they're four points behind Leinster and they know they'll have to win both this week and next to go ahead of them. They'll be confident they can do exactly that though and when you see their team, you'll understand why.

They've named an incredibly strong squad for Sunday's match. All their injuries doubts have cleared up and unlike last April they have all their top men at their disposal, bar lock Jamie Cudmore who's suspended (and probably a bit of a liability anyway). Their captain Aurelien Rougerie has been declared fit and he'll partner either Gavin Williams or Gonzalo Canale in midfield. Anthony Floch is a rock at fullback and he's got two massive wingers either side of him in Fijian Napolioni Nalaga and Julien Malzieu. Nalaga was the top try scorer in the French league last season and Malzieu got a hat trick of tries in the match at the RDS. Both Both are huge men who are also very quick and they'll take a lot of stopping. Scrum-half Morgan Parra has taken over the place-kicking from Brock James this season and has been scoring well. However James is still a class act and freed from the burden of place kicking, he'll be looking to atone for last season by ripping Leinster apart with his superb passing game.

Despite all their fantastic backs, Clermont are still a French team, which means they're just as happy to crush you with their massive pack as run around you. The recruitment of Samoan hooker Ti'i Paulo and New Zealand number eight Sione Lauaki have strengthened their pack from last season even further. Paulo is strong and very mobile and Lauaki has been in sensational form this season, even managing to oust Clermont stalwart Elvis Vermeulen from his starting spot. He makes up the back row with the tireless open-side Alexandre Lapandry and the class act that is Julien Bonnaire. Loic Jacquet and Thibaut Privat make up a less glamorous but hard-working second row pairing and Thomas Domingo and Martin Scelzo are the props either side of Paulo. The ageless Mario Ledesma has been struggling with a knee injury so he starts on an incredibly strong bench that includes Lionel Faure, Davit Zirakashvili, Vermeulen and Benoit Baby. It's no overstatement to describe their line-up as awesome!

For Leinster to go there and win was always going to be a seriously tough task, but then when they lost Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O'Driscoll in the autumn internationals it almost became Mission Impossible. After a week of unconvincing "maybes" about O'Driscoll being available for this week, it was confirmed today that he has to sit the match out with his fractured jaw. So Eoin O'Malley is named at outside centre, a hell of a match to make your Heineken Cup debut in. Much has been made of the physical difference between O'Malley and the massive Rougerie, his direct opponent, but O'Malley is a game sort and he'll be looking forward to the challenge.

He'll be encouraged by the fact that he scored his first Leinster try last weekend in the draw with the Scarlets. Fergus McFadden made his first start for Leinster on the wing in that match and passed the test with flying colours, defending well and also scoring a try. He has a much tougher task this weekend going up against Nalaga, but McFadden will just be delighted to be finally starting a Heineken Cup match so he'll be well up for it. Shane Horgan scored Leinster's other try in that match, his third try in three games and he'll have a lot to prove in his head to head with Malzieu after the French international ran three tries in past him last April. The only surprise in the Leinster team is Isaac Boss starting at scrum-half ahead of Eoin Reddan. The fact that Leinster need a massive defensive effort probably got the combative Kiwi the nod. He partners Jonny Sexton who'll be desperate to make up for an off day with the boot last week.

There are two personnel changes in the pack as Nathan Hines and Jamie Heaslip come in for Devin Toner and Rhys Ruddock, and one positional change as Sean O'Brien shifts back to the flank. As with the game against Racing Metro, Cian Healy is selected on the bench in the hope that Heinke van der Merwe can settle Leinster down in the scrum and give them a platform off which to play. It's going to be a massive challenge for van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross as Clermont have not one, but two world-class front rows, one starting and another on the bench. It's going to take a massive effort from the front five and as with the game against Racing Metro, the game will be won and lost in that battle.

It's a really tough task for Leinster to win and in truth, they know that a losing bonus point would be an acceptable return from this match. However, they can't go into the match looking for a bonus point as that's the surest road to a hammering. They have to go out and fight for absolutely everything, make every tackle they can, hit every ruck like demons and try to take any chance to score that comes along.

It will be very, very tough but if Leinster's attitude is right then they might just be able to take a very valuable point from this match.

Team Lineups

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

Thomas Domingo
1 Heinke van der Merwe
Ti'i Paolo
2 Richardt Strauss
Martin Scelzo
3 Mike Ross
Loic Jacquet
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Thibaut Privat
5 Nathan Hines
Julien Bonnaire
6 Sean O'Brien
Alexandre Lapandry
7 Shane Jennings
Sione Lauaki
8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Mario Ledesma
16 Jason Harris-Wright
Lionel Faure
17 Cian Healy
Davit Zirakashvili

18 Clint Newland
Julien Pierre
19 Devin Toner
Elvis Vermeulen
20 Dominic Ryan
Kevin Senio
21 Eoin Reddan
Taseva Lavea
22 Sean Berne
Benoit Baby
23 Dave Kearney
Not Considered
due to Injury

Stan Wright,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Rob Kearney,
Brian O'Driscoll,
Andrew Conway,
Paul Ryan

Officials Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU),
Assistant Referees: Sean Davey, Colin Goodliffe (both RFU),
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-23