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ASM Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster Rugby
European Champions Cup Semi-final
Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon,
Sunday, 23rd April 2017, 16:00 (15:00 Irish Time)

Television: Sky Sports

So it's off to Lyon for Leinster's fourth semi-final in France in the last eight seasons.

They lost to Toulouse in Toulouse in 2010, beat Clermont in Bordeaux in 2012 and lost to Toulon in Marseilles in 2015. Now it's Clermont again, this time in Lyon. So Leinster have to do it the hard way if they're going to make their first final for five years. They face a massive task in beating Clermont, but not an insurmountable one. As great a club as they are, they're more used to losing big knock-out games than winning them. For all their great support and massive budget, they've only won one Challenge Cup in 2007 and one Top 14 in 2010 and nothing since. Since re-emerging as a major club again just over a decade ago after a few years in the doldrums, they've lost the Top14 final four times and the European final twice. They've endured quite a bit of heartbreak and there's always a touch of fragility about them.

Clermont have had an inconsistent run of results in what's been a curious season for French rugby, with the unlikely figures of La Rochelle holding a commanding lead at the top of the table. They are in second place in the table, but they've lost eight and drawn three of their twenty four games. Their once proud home record has fallen away, they've actually lost twice there this season, the latest defeat just two weeks ago against lowly Brive. Admittedly, since they beat Toulon in the quarter-final, they've twice played under-strength teams, clearly prioritising the match on Sunday. In contrast to their domestic form, they've been pretty outstanding in Europe. They won five out of their six pool matches, hammering sides like Ulster and Exeter along the way. The quarter-final win over Toulon was a horrible slog of a match to watch but they were decisive winners in the end.

That victory did come at a cost however as they lost their French international winger Noa Nakaitaci to injury and this, coupled with the loss of Wesley Fofana earlier in the season, means their attack isn't quite as lethal as normal. However this has been offset somewhat by the superb form of centre Remi Lamerat, who's been a revelation since his transfer in from Castres last summer. He's partnered by club legend Aurelien Rougerie, who is still strong as ever at 36, but whose lack of pace could be targeted. David Strettle, Scott Spedding and Nick Abendanon make up the back three with Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra running the ship at half-back. Their pack is full of big men who can play like Damien Chouly, Fritz Lee, Sebastien Vahaamahina and Peceli Yato. They're a fine team who can steamroll anyone on their day but they can also crumble when they're under pressure.

Leinster warmed up for this tie with a pleasantly surprising win down in Connacht. With a largely second string side named, they were favoured to lose but the team were excellent, scoring five tries in an absolute belter of a derby. A number of players put their hands up to be included this weekend, however the team, captained by Isa Nacewa from the left wing, sees only three of the starting fifteen retained. Luke McGrath starts at scrumhalf and Hayden Triggs in the second row and in a positional switch, Rhys Ruddock, moves from eight to six in the back row, alongside Dan Leavy and Jack Conan. In the front row Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong pack down either side of Richardt Strauss, with Sean Cronin unlucky to be only on the bench. Johnny Sexton pulls the strings from number ten. He resumes his partnership with the centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. In the back three, the only surprise is the inclusions of Fergus McFadden on the right wing with Adam Byrne not named in the 23.

Leinster need to do the same on Sunday, get up in Clermont's faces before they can get their big men motoring. Leinster also need to keep their attacking instincts and have a go at Clermont every chance they get. That positive offensive strategy has gotten Leinster to this position and their best way to win will be to run the legs off the big Clermont pack, just like they did to Montpellier. Admittedly, that was at home and Leinster haven't won a match in France in their last four visits. However Leinster have played Clermont twice in the knock-out stages and won twice and the pressure will all be on the home side as favourites.

Though the travelling support will likely be outnumbered about 20 to 1 in the stadium, its important that they still make themselves heard, just like in Bordeaux five years ago.

It's going to be tough but Leinster might just pull something special off this Sunday.

Team Lineups

ASM Clermont Auvergne

Leinster Rugby
Teams Scott Spedding 15 Joey Carbery
David Strettle 14 Fergus McFadden
Aurelien Rougerie 13 Garry Ringrose
Remi Lamerat 12 Robbie Henshaw
Nick Abendanon 11 Isa Nacewa (C)
Camille Lopez 10 Johnny Sexton
Morgan Parra 9 Luke McGrath

Raphael Chaume 1 Jack McGrath
Benjamin Kayser 2 Richardt Strauss
Davit Zirakashvili 3 Tadhg Furlong
Arthur Iturria 4 Devin Toner
Sebastien Vahaamahina 5 Hayden Triggs
Damien Chouly (C) 6 Rhys Ruddock
Peceli Yato 7 Dan Leavy
Fritz Lee 8 Jack Conan

Replacements John Ulugia 16 Sean Cronin
Etienne Falgoux 17 Peter Dooley
Aaron Jarvis 18 Michael Bent
Paul Jedrasiak 19 Ross Molony
Alexandre Lapandry 20
Josh van der Flier
Ludovic Radosavljevic 21 Jamison Gibson-Park
Pato Fernandez 22 Ross Byrne
Damien Penaud 23 Zane Kirchner

Not Considered
Due to Injury
Noa Nakaitaci,
Wesley Fofana

Jordi Murphy,
James Ryan,
Jeremy Loughman,
Dave Kearney,
Rob Kearney,
Jamie Heaslip,
Sean O'Brien
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2017-04-21