Schmidt’s insight vital as Leinster enter Clermont’s fortress

NO Brian O’Driscoll, no Rob Kearney, no Luke Fitzgerald and — thanks to the weather — not a proper training session in two weeks.

On the face of it, not exactly the most promising set of circumstances for a side hoping to ransack what is routinely considered to be one of European rugby’s more imposing fortresses this weekend.

And yet… three sides have bettered Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin in the Heineken Cup since Leinster first did so back in 2002 — a fact that gains in significance given the French side sat out the competition in three of those intervening years.

Stade Francais turned them over in 2005 and so did Leicester and Sale in the space of 12 months not so long ago. Munster lost there twice but left both times clinging to the considerable consolation of a bonus point that proved crucial in escaping their pool.

So while it is certainly isn’t Mission Impossible for Leinster, it is nonetheless a major ask for a side bereft of such a glittering trio. All eyes will thus be on Eoin O’Malley at centre and Fergus McFadden on the wing.

O’Malley’s workload, given his positioning in the main thoroughfare, would appear to be the more arduous, not least because he will be facing the imposing Aurelien Rougerie in that critical channel.

Blossom in France and the signs are that his services will be required again for the return tie in the Aviva Stadium a week later as Schmidt remains more hopeful than confident of O’Driscoll’s jaw injury being healed in time.

The Irish captain’s absence, though damaging, was at least flagged. There was less notice about Schmidt’s decision to go with Isaac Boss at scrum-half instead of Eoin Reddan, while Cian Healy is another absentee to have raised eyebrows.

Both were key members of Declan Kidney’s Ireland side last month and Schmidt admitted that it had been awkward to reassimilate international players back into the provincial scene — though a thigh injury didn’t help Healy’s hopes of starting.

Schmidt hinted that Boss’ physicality edged him ahead of Reddan in a case of “horses for courses” and holding the line will be of paramount importance against a side that put 40 points on Leicester at the same ground last season.

Leinster travel in good shape — their absentees aside — as they have a modicum of leeway having won their opening two games and they are guided by a coach who spent much time in the opposition camp as one of Vern Cotter’s right-hand men.

Leinster will start with seven different players from the team that claimed a one-point quarter-final win over Clermont eight months ago, while the visitors have brought in two significant new faces in New Zealand forwards Ti’i Paulo and Sione Lauaki.

By choosing those two in starting berths, Cotter has left himself with the luxury of calling on a hefty bench containing the likes of Mario Ledesma and Elvis Vermeulen. Enviable riches, certainly, but doubts still hang over Clermont.

Long touted as the best side not to have won this competition, they scratched their most infuriating itch by claiming the French championship last May but the suspicion remains that they have yet to square that achievement away and move on.

Impressive in their defeat of Toulouse last week, they lost to newly-promoted La Rochelle the week before and lie seventh in the Top 14 table. One theory — borne in some part in Munster — has it that they get sweaty if their opponent can hang tough for an hour or so.

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