Can Blues breach Fort Knox?

Fifty games.

One thousand, one hundred and 13 days. Three-and-a-bit-years. Whatever way you break it down, it is impossible to dilute Clermont Auvergne’s achievement in avoiding defeat at their Stade Marcel Michelin since Biarritz pilfered a win back on November 21, 2009.

Joe Schmidt remembers the day well.

The Leinster coach was still an assistant to Vern Cotter at the time and his recollections of that surprising reversal remain as vivid now as they were in the minutes after a rare home defeat which he described with considerable feeling yesterday as a kick in the gut.

“It was during the November international Tests so we were a couple of guys down. So were Biarittz. They were missing (Imanol) Harinordoquy, but they scored in the last minute and even the way they scored it was just a missed tackle on the outside. They really walked in. The guy who missed the tackle doesn’t play for them anymore and that tends to be the way they operate – if you don’t get it right you get a ticket.”

One mistake and you’re out.

That may be an exaggeration but it is, nonetheless, an intriguing insight into the culture at Clermont and it isn’t as though that defeat marked the start of the Michelin’s days as a fortress. Montauban had been the last team to leave town with a win in tow and that was 13 months earlier. By Schmidt’s reckoning, the place hasn’t been sacked more than half-a-dozen times in Cotter’s seven years in charge.

This is their tenth season competing in the Heineken Cup and, though Leinster are one of five sides to have captured the home standard in that time, that was way back in 2002/03 when the province was called the Lions and Clermont were Ferrand rather than Auvergne. Not since Sale outdid them in a feast of attacking rugby on the opening day four seasons ago have they been overcome there in Europe.

The law of averages alone would suggest that the odds on someone interrupting those sequences should be shrinking as the weeks go on but then, as Schmidt admitted, the same could be said about Leinster’s knack of being able to squeak past Clermont time and again in recent seasons.

One only has to think back to Brock James’ bout of the yips when the pair met in an RDS quarter-final two years ago, or to last May when Wesley Fofana was held up over the line at the death in Bordeaux to suspect that Clermont’s luck simply has to turn in this most magnified of modern rivalries.

In fairness to Schmidt, he didn’t attempt to insult anyone’s intelligence by airbrushing the facts. He has no quibble with the fact that Clermont are stronger now than seven months ago. Damien Chouly has been brought in since and it is unlikely that they will lose two totems as early as they did Lee Byrne and Julien Malzieu last time out.

Barely an eye was blinked when news spread that they had lost French international prop Thomas Domingo to a shoulder injury in training on Wednesday. Why? Well, because they just drafted in Vincent Debaty, another of Phillipe Saint-Andre’s boys, instead.

Even Leinster’s celebrated strength in depth pales alongside that although it was on this same assignment two years ago that Eoin O’Malley came of age when promoted to centre in the absence of Brian O’Driscoll who is one of five men missing from this latest hike to the Massif Central.

Fingers will be crossed that Andre Goodman can cope just as favourably but it is a bad time for such leaps of faith given they travel with a two-point deficit to tackle rather than the two-point buffer they enjoyed in 2010. Return home empty-handed tomorrow night and they will be long odds to make it to the quarter-finals.

It’s an enormous ask, even if this is a team that has experience and nous to burn and one that has scrambled out of cavernous holes in the recent past, but then Schmidt knows better than most what is required to breach this latest version of Fort Knox.

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