By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
Bordeaux is famed for its wine but this weekend it’ll be the smell of rugby players’ sweat filling the air rather than the fruity aroma of a good red. Clermont Auvergne and Leinster go head-to-head at the Stade Chaban Delmas for a place in this year’s Heineken Cup final – and it’s sure to be an enthralling affair…
Variety is the spice of life
Both these teams have the ability to mix up their games, to play it tight or wide, to use brute power or sleight of hand. Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip can make hard yards with ball in hand for Leinster one minute, for example, and in the next phase Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald will be cutting incisive angles out wide. Clermont are the same with big lumps like Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines as well as fleet-footed dangermen like Sitiveni Sivivatu and Wesley Fofana.
Leinster have really broadened their game in recent years – the fact this is their fourth straight Heineken Cup semi-final is testament to that – and their pack can no longer be regarded as the weak link. The front row of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross can hold their own and it’s important not to underestimate the impact Brad Thorn’s bulk will have on their scrummage – but they will need to match Clermont’s powerful pack up front and negate the threat of loosehead Lionel Faure to get decent possession.
This is Clermont’s first semi-final – will they be able to cope with the pressure and expectation? Having got the proverbial monkey off their back by lifting the Top 14 title in 2010 after losing an incredible ten finals, they are surely feeling less pressure these days. They have made no secret of their ambition to win the Heineken Cup in this, their 100th anniversary season, and have assembled a squad capable of becoming European champions, but it’s their mental strength that will be crucial against Leinster.
The Irish province have been in this situation many times before and know what it takes to win. In what is sure to be a tight contest, they will believe they can close out a victory – but can Clermont match their composure? Or will Brock James be haunted by memories of his nightmare in Clermont’s 2010 quarter-final defeat by Leinster?
On the attack
The prospect of seeing these two back-lines in full swing is mouthwatering. They are both crammed with talent and it could well be a moment of individual genius that decides this match.
Clermont’s threequarters contain the power of Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu, the skills of Fofana and the pure pace of Sivivatu – he may not have made the All Blacks World Cup squad but he surely would have been warmly welcomed in any other country’s.
Leinster’s experienced centre pairing of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy will be as influential in defence as they are in attack, and BOD can always be relied upon to pull off a piece of magic in a big game. Then there’s the danger of Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa out wide.
Perhaps the most intriguing head-to-head, though, is Lee Byrne v Rob Kearney. They are two of the world’s most reliable full-backs under the high ball and both have the knack of catching their own up-and-unders to launch attacks.
This match could easily go down to the wire and is extremely hard to call. Clermont are probably marginal favourites as the match is in France, but I’m picking Leinster’s nous and experience to see them through to another final. By just a point or two!
CLERMONT AUVERGNE v LEINSTER, SUNDAY 29 APRIL, 3pm, Live on Sky Sports 2
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Aurelien Rougerie (capt), Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu; Brock James, Morgan Parra; Lionel Faure, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire, Alexandre Lapandry, Elvis Vermeulen.
Replacements: Ti’i Paulo, Vincent Debaty, Daniel Kotze, Julien Pierre, Julien Bardy, Ludovic Radoslavjevic, Regan King, Jean-Marcel Buttin.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen (capt), Brad Thorn, Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Heinke van der Merwe, Nathan White, Devin Toner, Kevin McLaughlin, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.
Referee: Wayne Barnes