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Leinster Rugby vs ASM Clermont Auvergne
Aviva Stadium, Dublin,
Saturday, 15th December 2012, 15:40

Television: Live Sky Sports 1, FR2, Highlights TG4 20.55.

Last Sunday's match was definitely filed under "the ones that got away".

If offered a losing bonus point before the game, most Leinster fans would have taken it. However, Leinster put in such a magnificently brave performance in Stade Marcel-Michelin that both players and supporters left the arena thinking of what might have been.

The mighty Clermont attack was never really allowed to break through as Leinster bossed them at the breakdown and consistently smashed them back in the tackle. They also gradually increased the pressure in the scrum to the point that they were dominant well before the end. However, they let themselves down at the end with some mistakes of their own, with some loose kicking from hand and some poor lineouts. It will really annoy them, because they genuinely had the chance to make history.

So Leinster's record unbeaten run in Europe comes to an end at seventeen games. With Clermont now holding a five-point lead in the pool, Leinster know that Saturday is quite simply a must-win game. If they could win with a four-try bonus point they could still retain hopes of topping the group but realistically Leinster's best hopes are to qualify as one of the best runner-ups. Either way, they need to win tomorrow or they're basically out.

The pressure is on Leinster but they will be confident that they can do the business. Two years ago, Leinster had a tough defeat in Clermont and turned it around six days later to hammer them 24-08 at the Aviva. This time they will be even more motivated and perhaps even more confident too.

From Clermont's point of view, they will hope that with the suffocating pressure from last week now lifted, they will play with more freedom to really have a go at Leinster. Clermont's away form in Europe has traditionally been poor and though it's improved in the last two seasons, they've still lost all their previous six Heineken Cup trips to Ireland (three to Leinster, two to Munster and one to Ulster). You have to go back to October 2000 for their only win on Irish soil, a 12-3 over Connacht in the Challenge Cup.

Yet Leinster know more than any other province that the bitterness built up from these defeats can be a great motivator. In particular their last two visits to Dublin will come to mind, but for different reasons. In the epic quarter-final in the RDS in 2010, Clermont outscored Leinster three tries to two and were the better team but their kickers let them down. Eight months later they came to the Aviva and were over-awed by the occasion and basically collapsed. The memory of that match in particular will have them determined not to repeat those mistakes.

Clermont coach Vern Cotter has made a couple of changes to the team which started last week. After his struggles in the scrum last week, loosehead prop Vincent Debaty is demoted to the bench and youngster Raphael Chaume comes in to start in his place. Chaume is a smaller prop than Debaty but very highly rated as a scrummager and he will present a different challenge to Mike Ross. The other definite change is in the backrow where tough Portuguese international Julien Bardy comes in for Alexandre Lapandry on the flank.

Loic Jacquet replaces fellow French international Julien Pierre on the bench as the substitute lock. There is a doubt over the fitness of fly-half Brock James so the Australian is bracketed with David Skrela. Though James has struggled in Dublin in the past, he was in good form last week and losing him for the more static Skrela would be a blow.

Joe Schmidt has made four changes to the team that started last week. Predictably enough for a home Heineken Cup match, Eoin Reddan returns to start at scrum-half. Isaac Boss had a fine game last week, but when Leinster play at their peak it's generally off the back of Reddan's quick passing from the ruck. The rest of the backline is unchanged and though David Kearney is fit enough to be recalled to the bench, Schmidt has given a vote of confidence to the outside backs from the last day.

The other three changes come in the pack where Heinke van der Merwe and Richardt Strauss are recalled to the front row. The selection of van der Merwe over Cian Healy is slightly surprising but the South African may well have started last week but for injury so it's a sensible call. Healy also put in a massive effort last week and he'll arrive on the fifty-minute mark like a bull in a china shop. Strauss comes back in for Sean Cronin at hooker and he would have been reliving those lost lineouts in the last quarter all week. But with Leo Cullen and Jonno Gibbes working hard on it all week, the set-piece should hopefully be back to normal.

The final change sees the return of Shane Jennings to the backrow in place of Kevin McLaughlin, with Sean O'Brien moving to blind-side. McLaughlin did ship a heavy knock to the head late in last week's game but this change probably would have happened regardless. In the interests of playing a higher tempo game, Schmidt will have to see O'Brien used more as a ball carrier with Jennings doing more of the spade work at the rucks.

With a record crowd due for an Irish pool match (48,000 tickets sold at the time of writing) there's been a great buzz about the game all week. It's a testament to the ability of the Leinster marketing department that the big December match at the Aviva already feels like an essential part of the build-up to Christmas in only its third year. The Clermont fans will travel as well and they'll bring great noise and colour to the occasion as always. However Schmidt will hope for a repeat of two years ago when the crowd fed off the team's performance to create possibly the most raucous atmosphere yet witnessed in the redeveloped stadium. The Clermont fans showed how noisy they can be last week, it's up to all the Leinster supporters this week to get off their arse and reply in kind.

Leinster fans are confident their team can win. So are the Clermont fans and this time they know anything other than a heavy defeat won't be a complete disaster either. It's going to be a ferocious encounter right from the start but you get the feeling Leinster have one of their big performances coming. They'll need it too!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
ASM Clermont Auvergne
Teams Ian Madigan
15 Lee Byrne
Fergus McFadden 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu
Gordon D'Arcy
13 Aurelien Rougerie (C)
Andrew Goodman
12 Wesley Fofana
Isa Nacewa
11 Napolioni Nalaga
Jonathan Sexton
10 Brock James/ David Skrela
Eoin Reddan
9 Morgan Parra

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Raphael Chaume
Richardt Strauss 2 Benjamin Kayser
Mike Ross 3 Davit Zirakashvili
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Jamie Cudmore
Damian Browne
5 Nathan Hines
Sean O'Brien 6 Julien Bonnaire
Shane Jennings
7 Julien Bardy
Jamie Heaslip
8 Damien Chouly

Replacements Sean Cronin
16 Ti'i Paulo
Cian Healy
17 Vincent Debaty
Michael Bent
18 Daniel Kotze
Devin Toner
19 Loic Jacquet
Kevin McLaughlin
20 Alexandre Lapandry
Isaac Boss
21 Ludovic Radosavljevic
David Kearney
22 David Skrela/Benson Stanley
Andrew Conway
23 Regan King
Not considered
due to injury
Luke Fitzgerald,
Mark Flanagan,
David Doyle,
Quinn Roux,
Rob Kearney,
Darren Hudson,
Brian O'Driscoll
  Julien Malzieu,
Gerhard Vosloo,
Clement Ric,
Thomas Domingo
Match Officials Referee: Wayne Barnes (England),
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle (England), Paul Dix (England),
TMO: Geoff Warren (England),
4th Official:Ken Henley-Willis (Ireland),
Citing Commissioner: Mike Rafter (England),

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-12-14