Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin, with its high-banked tiers packed with vociferous supporters, has earned a reputation as European rugby’s most robust fortress but Isa Nacewa believes Leinster will bring their own 16th man to France next Sunday.
Joe Schmidt spent three seasons as assistant coach to Vern Cotter in the town perched atop the Massif Central and the Fijian suggested that will equate to “an extra man” when the two heavyweights take the first bell in this latest Heineken Cup meeting.
Signs are they might need it.
This is a head-to-head where the clichéd concept of inches truly does matter. Leinster may have won five of the six meetings but there has rarely been much to separate them and Clermont recently registered their 50th consecutive success at their home stadium.
“It’s a tough place to go,” said Nacewa yesterday with admirable understatement.
“Awesome support, awesome crowd. They’re the strongest team on paper, so many international caps and it’s going to be a big one.
“They are an unbelievable side and even what they call their second string side still has hundreds of international caps each week. It’s a strong back line they’ve got over there. We’ve got to be on our game, really.”
Nacewa could very well have found himself in Clermont and uttering similar words about Leinster this week given he once fielded an attempted recruitment call from Schmidt when his old Blues coach was still in France and the player was still home in New Zealand.
“That was a long time ago. Joe just rang me up while he was coach there and just had thoughts about it. That’s all it really was, thoughts. I liked the way Joe was coaching after his time with the Blues. It was a thought but I turned it down and came to Leinster instead.”
Leinster will make the trip without Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, all of whom are on the long-term absentee list, while Eoin O’Malley and Dave Kearney will be monitored in training throughout the week.
That aside, Schmidt and his staff have no new fitness concerns for the round four fixture and assistant coach Jono Gibbes also insisted that Sean O’Brien was ready for 80 minutes of hard-boiled physical grunt.
The Tullow back-row has played just 120 minutes of rugby this season, all of it coming in the last two games against Glasgow Warriors and Zebre, but the Leinster brains trust seems to have no doubt that the 2011 European Player of the Year is ready for what could be a season-defining contest.
“It’s not a lot of game-time but he’s put in a massive amount of work to come back from his injury and be playing through games,” said Gibbes.
“They’ve managed his workload really well, the trainers, they’re confident that he’s in good nick.
“He’s a positive guy anyway. Just his sheer presence at training, he lifts people and he’s a robust carrier so, physically, there’s some real positives. But as a guy he’s good to have around the squad on the training ground and when you go into battle.”
Leinster will need every man jack of them.
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