Bernard Jackman: Expect excitement, quality, and a Leinster win

Clemont and Leinster have served up some cracking spectacles when their paths have crossed in Europe.

Bernard Jackman: Expect excitement, quality, and a Leinster win

On their day, both teams are capable of playing thrilling rugby and scoring memorable tries and if the pressure of the occasion doesn’t force either team into their shells then we should be set for an enthralling clash.

Leinster’s victory over Clermont in the 2012 semi-final in Stade Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux, was one of the most exciting games ever played in the tournament.

That clash, and the outcome, will be at the back of players’ minds, for better or for worse.

There is so much to like about Leinster in this campaign, which has been all the more remarkable given that they failed to qualify from their group last season.

Former England boss Stuart Lancaster deserves every plaudit coming his way.

He has bounced back from the hurt of a failed ‘home’ World Cup campaign to re-ignite the team and turn them into one of the most impressive in Europe.

But it is about more than any one individual; the collective mindset is key. Everyone must know their roles and be pulling in the same direction.

Leinster have a conveyor belt of talent coming through their academy every year and the financial backing to retain and recruit world class players, but unless the environment is right along with the game plans and systems then you will be quickly found out among the elites of European rugby.

Clermont are desperately searching for another piece of silverware (they won the Top 14 in 2010) before this team starts to break up over the summer.

Jono Gibbes moves to Ulster to take up the head coaching role. The market for French qualified players in France has meant that other clubs have been able to poach many of their talented squad players.

There is no doubting the quality which Clermont possess but are they capable of handling the pressure at the knockout stages of both the Top 14 and Champions Cup?

The match venue — Matmut Stadium de Gerland in Lyon — is only a 90-minute drive from Clermont so Leo Cullen’s men can expect an intimidating atmosphere from some of the most vocal fans in the Top 14.

But given the amount of international experience in the Leinster ranks I’m not unduly worried the impact an away fixture will have on them.

One of the most experienced heads on the Leinster team is Isa Nacewa who must now be regarded as one of the best, if not the greatest, foreign signing Leinster have ever made.

The beauty about Nacewa is his consistency. It doesn’t matter if it is a Champions Cup quarter-final at home to Wasps in a sold-out Aviva Stadium or a Guinness PRO12 match away to Zebre in front of 500 spectators, he plays his game at a world class level.

He is such a good role model for everyone in the squad and he will develop into a great coach when he hangs up the boots (for good) as his tactical brain is second to none.

Clermont put 59 points on my old side Grenoble last weekend — a strong reaction to the rare home loss they suffered a week earlier in their derby clash with Brive.

Clermont had originally planned to beat Brive at home and rest their frontline players against Grenoble and have them fresh for Leinster but the loss to Brive and the closing pack in the race for Top 14 honours forced them into a rethink.

Will that decision play into Leinster’s hands? By contrast, Leinster sent what was virtually a second-string selection on paper to Galway and beat Connacht in the PRO12 last weekend, thereby keeping their star players safe from injury risk.

There are always two schools of thought about the best strategy to take in terms of team selection leading into a knock-out stage and that is why being in a comfortable position in your domestic league is so important.

We will find out this afternoon which team are in the best shape physically particularly entering the crucial last 20 minutes.

The forecast is sunny and a balmy 20 degrees. Both teams like to move the ball and play high-tempo rugby which will test their fitness and concentration levels. I think Leinster will benefit from having Nigel Owens as match referee.

I am not suggesting any bias but familiarity with match officials is always a help and being able to adapt to his refereeing of the breakdown and scrum, for example, will be key to getting a positive result.

Some people criticise Owens for his backchat to players and witty one-liners, but I think he is great for the sport.

In an era when a lot of the referees act like robots, he brings an interesting personality to the game along with being a consistently strong performer.

Joey Carbery was outstanding in the quarter-final at fullback. Utilising him there allows Leinster to have two first receivers off midfield rucks through Joey and Jonny Sexton. This poses problems for opposition defences as both are excellent readers of the defence and quality passers.

The French outfit will have learned some valuable lessons from studying the video of Leinster’s victory over Wasps. Expect them to utilise a kicking strategy to isolate and expose Carbery’s inexperience at 15.

Wasps kicked down his throat and he had the time and space to launch counter-attack after counter-attack. Clermont wouldn’t be as kind.

Clermont’s scrum and lineout is not as well drilled as those of Leinster and defensively they tend to lose their discipline once you build the phases against them.

They are also missing the two players that can cause the most problems ball in hand — Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci — which is another chink in the Clermont armour.

Winning in France is never easy, but as Leinster have proven in the past that they thrive in such pressurised environments.

I expect them to continue that trend this afternoon and book their place in next month’s final.

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