As Ulster adapt to being favourites for a Heineken Cup semi-final, champions Leinster face the sternest test in the defence of their title and an all-Irish final hangs in the balance.
Coming in as tournament second seeds after the pool stages worked out well for Leinster as they were paired with an under strength and misfiring Cardiff Blues team in the quarter-final.
But an away semi-final to ASM Clermont Auvergne is about as tough as the Heineken Cup gets, ensuring that Joe Schmidt’s team are going to have to earn the privilege of reaching another final.
Sunday’s meeting at the Stade Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux throws up so many mouth-watering battles it’s hard to know where to begin but the inclusion of Brock James over the injured David Skrela just about merits top billing.
The news has prompted a certain degree of nostalgia among Leinster and Irish rugby fans who have been busy sharing YouTube clips of James’ capitulation in the RDS in the 2010 Heineken Cup quarter-final.
The Australian missed five kicks at goal and three drop goals leaving a total of 23 points behind him and letting Leinster off the hook as they hung on to win by a single point.
But it might serve those fans well to remember that before the recent arrival of Skrela, the Clermont number 10 jersey belonged to James and, with a total of 331 European points, he has played a big part in making them the force they are today.
James is very much a conductor at 10, despite the considerable firepower outside him in the backline he is content to take on responsibility himself and kick his side into the right areas of the pitch and when on song he is among the best game controllers in world rugby.
While Leinster will be aware of James’ talent, Seán O’Brien and his backrow colleagues will undoubtedly target the flyhalf early on and try and unsettle him before his first shot on target, if he wavers, Schmidt’s team may sense a chink of weakness in Clermont’s arsenal.
A fascinating contest is in making between the two most potent backline’s in the tournament. At the end of the pool stages Clermont had racked up an astounding 26 tries while Leinster came in second with 18. However the French outfit also conceded the fewest tries, leaking just five over the six games.
Having stood toe to toe with Fofana and Rougerie in the Six Nations D’Arcy and O’Driscoll will trust their defence but the Leinster centres will be looking to do more with ball in hand on Sunday especially with the pace of Fitzgerald and the wizardry of Nacewa on the wings however Sivivatu and Julien Malzieu are equally deadly on the flanks for Clerment.
Full-back is another compelling battle with two great counter-attackers on show but Lee Byrne’s decision-making isn’t always sound and given the form that Kearney has been in, Leinster possess the deadlier weapon.
Up front Leinster might sense an advantage. Clermont’s pack boasts some serious bulk and several viable options at lineout time but their scrum isn’t one of the competition’s strongest.
By halftime in their quarter-final against Saracens, Clermont had conceded four penalties in the scrum. With Wayne Barnes likely to police that area of the game strictly on Sunday, Leinster will look to Cian Healy to put pressure on Georgian Davit Zirakashvili and establish an area of real dominance in a game of very tight margins.
Heineken Cup semi-finals may be familiar territory for Leinster but for Brian McLaughlin’s Ulster it marks their best European venture since winning the Cup in 1999.
McLaughlin has already thrown something of a curveball with the inclusion of 20-year-old Paddy Jackson over regular flyhalf Ian Humphries. Jackson’s reliable defence in the outhalf channel may well be the reasoning behind this move especially given the threat of Edinburgh’s back row with ball in hand.
The battle at 10 could prove crucial given the importance of Greg Laidlaw to Edinburgh’s hopes. The Edinburgh captain was inspirational against the mighty Toulouse in the quarter-final.
But Laidlaw’s competition for game management will come as much from Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar as his opposite number.
It was Pienaar who orchestrated Ulster’s famous Thomond Park win and though he starts in the 9 jersey he will most likely push to outhalf at some stage while McLaughlin has now given himself the luxury of springing both Paul Marshall and Humphreys from the bench if the game needs a change of shape.
If Edinburgh are to avoid the brutality Munster endured in Thomond Park they must deploy and effective offloading game to limit the impact of the breakdown where Ulster are arguably the standard-bearers in Europe.
Stephen Ferris was imperious in this facet against Munster and led a tireless Ulster siege on Munster’s possession ensuring Conor Murray was repeatedly denied quick ball. Edinburgh will hope the excellent David Denton with help from Ross Rennie can neutralise Ferris.
Both teams find themselves in relatively unchartered territory but Ulster have players who won’t be intimidated by the occasion.
In Best, Muller, Wannenburg and Ferris there is no shortage of leaders in the pack and on a day when nerves run high it might just take one of these big game players to inspire his team while Craig Gilroy proved in Limerick that the backs can conjure up some magic too and with the likes of Cave and Trimble on the pitch Ulster have game changers aplenty.
Ulster won’t have it all their way but they will prove too strong for Edinburgh. On paper there’s nothing to choose between Leinster and Clermont but the Irish province’s experience and big game mentality will be enough to sneak a narrow victory.