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ASM Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster Rugby
Heineken Cup Semi-Final
Stade Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux,
Sunday, 29th April 2012, 16:00 (15:00 Irish Time)

Television: Live: Sky Sports 2, Highlights: TG4 18:00

It's them again!

After crossing paths three times in the last two seasons, you always got the sense that Leinster and Clermont Auvergne would renew acquaintances again this term.

When the draw for the semi-final was made, the toughest prospect for Leinster was meeting the 'Januards' away and sure enough it has come to pass. Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was probably hoping Saracens might do him a favour and beat his old club to provide a less daunting trip to London. However Clermont banished their reputation as poor travellers with a clinical and comprehensive display as they crushed the English champions 22-3.

Clermont are joint top of the Top 14 and have the best defence in the league. They haven't conceded a try in their last four games in all competitions. Yet great team that they undoubtedly are; they are far from unbeatable. The week before the Saracens match they travelled to struggling Biarritz and lost 15-14. You might assume that they'd sent a reserve side, but look up that game and you'll discover it was practically their full strength team, most of whom will start on Sunday.

The semi-final is in France but the game is not in Clermont's beloved Stade Marcel Michelin, where they are unbeaten in 42 straight games. Their preferred neutral venues would have been the nearby St. Etienne or Lyon but both those stadiums were ruled out due to having repair work done. So it's the decent trip to Bordeaux which is 200 miles away. Their passionate fans will make the trip no doubt, some 20,000 at least, but it still won't quite be home. They'll try to make it like home, but Stade Chaban Delmas is a different type of stadium, more open and not as close to the pitch as Marcel Michelin.

And all the pressure will be on Clermont with 'home' advantage. Not to mention the fact that this is their first ever semi-final, while this is Leinster's seventh. True, Leinster have only won two of their six semi-finals so far and both those victories came in Dublin. However history has shown that experience of those hard-won and hard-lost battles is invaluable and Clermont will experience pressure like they've never known before when they take the pitch on Sunday. It's one thing to have the whole of France looking at you, it's another thing to have the whole of Europe looking your way.

So there are plenty of reasons to be positive for Leinster fans, but the fact remains that it's still a hell of a tough job. And one Clermont player in particular will be doing everything to make it as difficult as possible. When, at the end of last season, Nathan Hines was forced out of Leinster by the brains trust at the IRFU you always felt we would meet him again. Well we didn't have to wait long. Hines was hugely popular with both fans and players in his two years with Leinster and he genuinely didn't want to leave. However he fell on his feet with a two-year deal at Clermont and now he'll be looking to perform the dark arts that were so useful for Leinster over that time.

Of course Leinster have brought in Brad Thorn recently and the battle between these two 'dogs of war' at the ruck and maul will be worth the ticket price on it's own. Forget the fancy back play just look at what these two get up to when the ball is gone. In fact both their second row partners Leo Cullen and Jamie Cudmore (who for once isn't suspended for a Leinster match) are hardly shrinking violets either. Between the four of them……there will be blood!

Last season Leinster played out of their skin to take a losing bonus point away before crushing Clermont 24-8 at the Aviva stadium. However Clermont has strengthened their squad considerably since that game 16 months ago. As well as Hines they brought in Benjamin Kayser from Castres, David Skrela from Toulouse, Regan King from Scarlets, Sitiveni Sivivatu from Waikato, Gerhard Vosloo from Brive and Lee Byrne from Ospreys. They've made a big difference and have added an Anglo-Saxon element to the team which has made them mentally tougher, especially on the road.

Since Joe Schmidt left them in 2010 after they finally won the Top14, Clermont's rugby hasn't been quite as pleasing on the eye. They play a very physical game, prepared to batter teams with their big mobile pack and their huge backs like Byrne, Sivivatu, Aurelien Rougerie and winger Julien Malzieu, who's scored four tries against Leinster in his last three games against them. Young centre Wesley Fofana is no giant but he's been the sensation of the French season, scoring tries for fun for both club and country. He is named with the four other giants in the starting outside backline.

The starting half-backs are Morgan Parra and Brock James and both will be looking for redemption in this match. Parra missed important kicks in both matches against Leinster last season and James has never fully recovered from his kicking nightmare in the RDS in the quarter-final two seasons ago. Leinster will concede Clermont should have won that night but James left 23 points behind him in missed place-kicks and drop goals. He went into that game with the reputation as one of the finest place-kickers in Europe but that night seemed to destroy his confidence and Parra and Skrela have largely done the job since. That said he came on for the injured Skrela against Saracens and kicked like a dream so perhaps that will be a turning point for him.

Clermont have named a hugely experienced, hard-beaten pack. Lionel Faure, Benjamin Kayser and Gergian tighthead Davit Zirakashvili will come after Leinster in the scrum looking for a repeat of the destruction Toulouse wreaked on them in the semi-final two years ago. They will be ably supported by grizzled veterans Cudmore and Hines in the second row. There's yet more experience in the back row with Julien Bonnaire and Elvis Vermeulen, two more old dogs for the hard road.

Open-side Alexandre Lapandry is at 23, the only young tyro in the pack but he's earned his place with constantly excellent performances. Typically for a club of Clermont's size they also have a very strong bench with Ti'i Paulo, Vincent Debaty and Julien Pierre offering experience and Daniel Kotze, Ludovic Radosavljevic and Jean-Marcellin Buttin bringing the excitement of youth. Regan King had plenty of good days against Leinster in his time with the Scarlets and he could be a game changer if brought on in the last twenty.

As expected, Joe Schmidt has largely gone with the same team that started against Cardiff in the quarter-final, but typical of Joe, he's made two changes. The first change was predictable enough with Isaac Boss coming in for Eoin Reddan at scrum-half. Boss's more physical approach is preferred to Reddan's speed from the ruck initially and it's a call that's worked out before on away trips to France. Boss will look to harry the life out of Parra at the base of the ruck and test out the French international's sometimes fragile temperament. Reddan will no doubt enter the match in the last quarter looking to increase the pace of things.

The second change is more of a surprise with Shane Jennings coming in for Kevin McLaughlin and Sean O'Brien switching over to the blindside flank. McLaughlin's graft, bulk and expertise at the lineout was expected to play a big part so it's interesting that he's gone for the lighter ground-hog in Jennings. Perhaps with such an emphasis on defence, Schmidt wanted another tackle-machine on the pitch, but it's a tough call on 'Locky' who's been in excellent form.

Aside from the Thorn/Hines epic, they are several key match-ups across the park. There's former Lions colleagues Rob Kearney and Lee Byrne at full-back, spiritual leaders Brian O'Driscoll and Aurelien Rougerie going head to head at outside centre and unsung heroes Richardt Strauss and Benjamin Kayser going hell for leather at the breakdown.

It's going to be a massive battle of attrition but Leinster are well-manned for such a taste and like Clermont they have experience and quality to bring off the bench. It's a very tough game to call as it could genuinely go either way. A lot will depend on the weather (rain is forecast) and on the performance of controversial referee Wayne Barnes, who seems an odd choice for such a big match.

However despite everything, Leinster do have the quality and character to pull off what would probably be their finest win in their history. Their experience of semi-finals past, both good and bad, will hopefully give them the edge to pull through.

Either way, it's going to be an amazing atmosphere in Bordeaux, and though Leinster fans will be heavily outnumbered, they'll do their damnedest to get behind the boys in blue.

It's going to be emotional!!


Team Lineups

ASM Clermont Auvergne

Leinster Rugby
Teams Lee Byrne 15 Rob Kearney
Sitiveni Sivivatu 14 Isa Nacewa
Aurelien Rougerie (C)
13 Brian O'Driscoll
Wesley Fofana12 Gordon D'Arcy
Julien Malzieu 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Brock James 10 Jonathan Sexton
Morgan Parra 9 Isaac Boss

Lionel Faure 1 Cian Healy
Benjamin Kayser 2 Richardt Strauss
Davit Zirakashvili 3 Mike Ross
Jamie Cudmore 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Nathan Hines 5 Brad Thorn
Julien Bonnaire 6 Sean O'Brien
Alexandre Lapandry 7 Shane Jennings
Elvis Vermeulen 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Ti'i Paulo 16 Sean Cronin
Vincent Debaty 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Daniel Kotze 18 Nathan White
Julien Pierre 19 Devin Toner
Julien Bardy 20 Kevin McLaughlin
Ludovic Radosavljevic 21 Eoin Reddan
Regan King 22 Ian Madigan
Jean-Marcellin Buttin 23 Fergus McFadden

Not Considered
due to Injury
Thomas Domingo,
Gerhard Vosloo,
Clement Ric,
Anthony Floch,
David Skrela

Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
John Cooney,
Eoin O'Malley
Officials Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU),
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (WRU), David Pearson (RFU),
4th Official: JP Doyle (RFU),
5th Official: Peter Huckle (RFU),
TMO: Geoff Warren (RFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-04-27