In a domestic league where every club boasts a gargantuan pack that always sets out to bully their way to victory up front, Clermont Auvergne are the masters, taking over from Toulouse in that respect. They boast a very strong scrum, despite the fact their outstanding loose head Thomas Domingo has been out for most of the season. But in Georgian international David Zirakashvili they have a massively disruptive force on the tight head side. The scrum will be their first point of attack.
Despite the quality on offer in every position behind the scrum, Clermont will bide their time before seeking to go wide. They will test Leinster up front first tomorrow with their outstanding maul and dynamic pick-and-go game. Central to this is the powerful second row combination of Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore, with the facility of introducing their explosive French international lock Julien Pierre off the bench. Had Leinster not bolstered their second row options for the knockout stages by signing Brad Thorn, they would seriously struggle to cope with the physicality and power of this Clermont front five. Thorn has the capacity to fill the void left when Hines departed at the end of last season.
The collisions in the tackle and at the breakdown in this game will be every bit as ferocious as any Six Nations encounter and Clermont have the ammunition in their starting eight and off the bench to ask more questions of Leinster up front since they faced that torrid opening forty minutes against Northampton in last year’s final. They found the answer at half-time in that encounter. They will have to find it from the start in Bordeaux to survive this physical examination.
This contest brings together two sides with brilliantly organised defences. Clermont haven’t conceded a try in their last four outings, including their Heineken Cup quarter-final away to Saracens and boast the best defensive record in the French Championship. Leinster also pride themselves in their defensive duties and while the excellence of their attacking game garners the headlines, it’s their work rate and commitment in the less glamorous chores that make them so difficult to break down. Defensively, something has to give in the Stade Chaban-Delmas tomorrow.
Clermont’s desire to succeed in Europe in this, their centenary season was evident in the defiant way they protected their line in the dying minutes against Saracens, even though the game was over as a contest. That is something this French outfit hasn’t always displayed in the past. Having suffered at the hands of Leinster in the quarter-final two years ago and been opened up defensively when the sides clashed in the pool stages last year at the Aviva Stadium, Clermont will be fully aware of the attacking threat posed by this Leinster backline. The outcome of the midfield battle between Clermont’s Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana against the famed partnership of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll will be crucial. With O’Driscoll looking sharper with every outing, his presence in defence will make Leinster an even more difficult nut to crack. Leinster scramble better than anyone in the tournament and their work rate and understanding of their individual defensive responsibilities on the fringe of the ruck and maul offers them a key advantage.
This is Leinster’s fourth consecutive semi-final and their sixth in all, while Clermont find themselves in the last four for the first time in the history of the club. That offers Leinster a big advantage. If anything the experience of losing to Toulouse at this stage at the Stade Municipal two years ago will prove far more beneficial than their winning experiences in 2009 and 2011 as it gives Leinster a clear insight into what they will face in Bordeaux. Toulouse came out with the clear intention of smashing Leinster up front in the opening half of that semi-final two years ago and succeeded in doing so. Clermont will seek to do the exact same on this occasion but Leinster are better equipped to cope with that examination this time out with Mike Ross now an established international. Question is will their best be good enough to match what Clermont will throw at them?
Up to recently Clermont had great difficulty in closing out big games, losing the French championship final on three successive occasions between 2007 and 2009 before finally getting the monkey off their backs by winning a first ever Bouclier de Brennus in 2010, beating Perpignan in their tenth final. That appears to have liberated them this season whereas last year they appeared to have lost their ambition.
Leinster are mentally strong and know how to win tight games, as demonstrated forcibly in last season’s final when they were on the ropes, 16 points down at half-time but somehow clawing their way back into the contest. After 13 consecutive games unbeaten in the Heineken Cup — Clermont were the last side to beat Leinster, winning 20-13 at the Stade Marcel Michelin last season — the only question facing them now, after strolling through the quarter-final against Cardiff in Dublin, is whether they are battle-hardened enough to deal with the physical onslaught that is sure to come their way tomorrow. If Leinster manage to deal with that in the opening 30 minutes then they have an edge in experience that could just about see them through to a third final in four years.