Leinster have history on their side

THERE isn’t much in the way of history between Leinster and Clermont Auvergne, but what little there is will always remain a source of some satisfaction for the Irish province.

The French club was known as Montferrand when the sides met in the group stages of the Heineken Cup seven years ago, and Leinster claimed their first ever scalp on French soil.

That may be an irrelevance to what happens in the RDS tonight but it is, at least, interesting to note that five of the home side’s squad played in that fixture while none of the visitors will be tainted by the memory.

Leinster won the reverse fixture in Dublin back then too but there is a pervasive sense that claiming a hat-trick of successes against Les Jaunards would be a laudable feat all in its own right.

Bookmakers have found it impossible to separate the two in the betting stakes and Leinster coach Michael Cheika had little hesitation earlier this week in describing it as the reigning champions’ biggest test of the season.

This being the Heineken Cup and Clermont being French, there will be those who point to Leinster’s home advantage while taking succour in the chequered history of Gallic sides on the road in seasons past.

A cursory glimpse at Clermont’s road map this season would support that point. They have won away from Stade Marc Michelin just once in the Top 14 since September and Viadana was their only successful raid in Europe. Dig deeper though.

That sole success on domestic duties came in Toulouse and they demonstrated their growing familiarity with what is required in the Heineken pool stages by claiming losing bonus points away to their two chief competitors.

“You’ve got a team like Clermont coming to town who really don’t seem to have an issue with playing away from home,” said Cheika.

“They’ve shown their strategic prowess with the two games they played in Leicester and Ospreys.

“The game in Leicester, they knew exactly what they wanted to get out of it – in the way they managed the last play, when they kicked the ball out – to ensure the bonus points. They’re very well managed.”

They are that – and the presence of Leinster’s coach-in-waiting Joe Schmidt in their backroom adds another dimension to proceedings – but they come to this evening’s business a tad off the boil.

Away defeats to Stade Français and Bayonne have bookended a deeply unconvincing, if ultimately comfortable, home win against Montpellier but they will surely bring their A-game to Dublin.

They are certainly bringing their A-Team.

Vern Cotter has made four changes to the side that lost in Paris. Italy’s Gonzalo Canale and South African Marius Joubert return at 12 and 13 and Aurelien Rougerie switches to the wing in place of the injured Napolioni Nalaga.

Brock James replaces Tasesa Lavea at ten while the combative Canadian Jamie Cudmore comes in to the second row instead of French international Julien Pierre. The daunting front and back rows remain the same.

It is, in total, a fearsome pack with grizzled vets like Mario Ledesma and Elvis Vermeulen complemented by the powerhouse prop Thomas Domingo and dynamic flanker Alexandre Lapandry.

Clermont are also able to marry the beauty with the beast thanks to an equally capable back line and a half-back pairing of the Australian James and Morgan Parra, who excelled for France in the Six Nations.

They will hardly lack for motivation having lost successive defeats in Top 14 finals and seen their recent European ambitions stymied by two of the most unfavourable group draws of recent times.

Facing them will be a Leinster side undefeated in ten games, a run that yawns back to early December and includes last week’s win over Munster. The long-term absence of Luke Fitzgerald aside, they are operating off a full roster.

As expected, Brian O’Driscoll has recovered from injury to replace Fergus McFadden, Shane Horgan has followed a similar path to make the wing instead of Girvan Dempsey and Nathan Hines comes in for Devin Toner.

It could hardly be a more difficult call.

Clermont’s front row of Thomas Domingo, Mario Ledesma and Davit Zirakishvili is a combination as fierce as it is international while the battle of the back rows could be positively explosive.

Most intriguing of all is the local skirmishes between Parra and James on one side and Eoin Reddan and Sexton on the other. Both partnerships pair an old head with a young pretender, and who can say which will prevail?

The same question could be asked of the game itself. Leinster’s form has been patchy, despite their impressive results, but it still engenders more confidence than that of their French visitors.

“We maybe haven’t been at our peak in some of the games but you can’t peak all the time,” said Cheika.

“We’d hope our preparation is leading some of the players towards a good peak this week.

“We’re going to need to be at our absolute best and then we’re going to have to hope for a bit of luck as well.”

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