The Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster semi-final pits two of the best teams to grace European competition in the last five years against each other in a winner-takes-all match. As Shane Horgan said on Sky Sports’ The Rugby Club last night, “This is a Heineken Cup semi-final. You don’t get anything for finishing within seven points.”
The two teams have met three times in the last couple of seasons in this tournament, with the result always going to the home team: at the moment, that means that Leinster lead the head-to-head 2-1. Following on from The Mole’s Ulster vs Edinburgh Preview, here’s a breakdown of the teams.
- Cian Healy/Richardt Strauss/Mike Ross
- Lionel Faure/Benjamin Kayser/David Zirakashvili
Cotter’s deployment of his front five forces has been exemplary in this European campaign. Clermont have started three tightheads in their seven games so far: the 23 year old sparkplug Clement Ric, the heavier-set South African Daniel Kotze  and most recently the Georgian bulldog David Zirakashvili , who has recovered from the broken forearm he sustained early in the season.
Loosehead has seen them switch between the veteran Lionel Fauré  and the enormous Belgian Vincent Debaty , with Faure having started the key clashes against Ulster in the Stade Marcel Michelin and the quarter-final against Saracens in Vicarage Road.
French international Benjamin Kayser  and Samoan Ti’i Paulo  have split the hooking duties pretty much down the middle, with Kayser starting the two most recent games. The serious injury problems of Thomas Domingo, the retirement of ‘Super’ Mario Ledesma and the departure of cornerstone Martín Scelzo, whose international career spanned fifteen seasons and four World Cups … well, they’d weaken any team, but Clermont have managed the succession well.
Joe Schmidt has rolled his front row troops in and out of the starting line-up through the tournament as well. Cian Healy  takes the No1 jersey ahead of Heinke van der Merwe, one of Leinster’s unsung heroes. The South African has racked up 57 games for the province in less than two full seasons, and will certainly get an outing off the bench: as well as being an outstanding scrummager on the loosehead side – who can forget his first scrum in last year’s semi-final, where he levered Toulouse’s enormous Cencus Johnson out of the scrum for a penalty? – he is one of the best tacklers in the Leinster squad, a real technician. Whilst not as explosive a ball carrier as Healy, he’s a great man for the hard yards close in with a distinctive style of head-down charging where he actually binds on to his opponent with his free arm, rather than opting for the fend – watch out for it!
However, Healy was Man of the Match the last time the two met in December 2010 in Lansdowne Road. When he’s properly motivated and keeps his concentration, he’s the best ball-carrying prop world rugby.
The nuggety Richardt Strauss  will likely start at hooker, with pacy Irish international Sean Cronin  on the bench for kick-off. Neither Strauss nor Cronin are physically massive men for hookers, but they each bring outstanding qualities to their game: Strauss’s low slung build and tenacity makes him perhaps the best ball-poacher in the province, while Cronin’s quick feet and sharp lines of running have allowed him to fit right in to Leinster’s high-tempo style.
Mike Ross has been the anchor for both the Irish and Leinster scrums this year, and while both Jamie Hagan and New Zealander Nathan White have seen gametime in the Heineken Cup this year, Ross is first choice by some distance. His very late emergence as a player vital to both province and country is an interesting story in itself, and something The Mole will probably cover later in the year, but suffice it to say that he will be a key player in defusing Clermont’s scrum attack.
- Brad Thorn/Leo Cullen
- Jamie Cudmore/Nathan Hines
Nathan Hines was a Heineken Cup-winner with Leinster just last season and an immensely popular squad member. That he left the province at all was largely due to the IRFU’s desire to break provincial dependence on foreign internationals, and to unblock the route for promising Irish talent in those positions that NIE players occupy in each provincial set-up. The Leinster coaches, the player himself and pretty much every single member of the Leinster fanbase would have liked Hines to stay at the RDS, but there’s no doubt that in his absence, Devin Toner has had an enormous season. He has played more rugby than anyone in the club bar Isa Nacewa, which is a hell of an accomplishment for a 25-year old lock forward.
Club captain Leo Cullen has been close to his curmudgeonly best since returning from Achilles tendon surgery and his workrate is right back up there with his restored mobility. Cullen mightn’t have the same eye-catching fist-slinging style as Jamie Cudmore, but he’s as tough as old boots and a hell of a lot cannier than the big Canuck when it comes to escaping the referee’s attention.
Cudmore has long been Clermont’s black-hatted bad guy, but on Sunday he’s going to come face to face with rugby’s John Wayne – All Black and Kangaroo legend Brad Thorn. The two of them only shared the pitch for the last seven or eight minutes of New Zealand’s facile 79-15 win over Canada in the group stages of RWC11, by which time any tetchy atmosphere had been damped right down. You’ve got to believe that sparks will fly this time out: Cudmore has a notoriously short fuse, and Thorn doesn’t like anybody taking liberties …
- Sean O’Brien/Shane Jennings/Jamie Heaslip
- Julien Bonnaire/Alexandre Lapandry/Elvis Vermeulen
South African Gerhard Vosloo  started five group games and the classy Portuguese Julien Bardy  started three: Vosloo is unavailable for selection due to injury, and while question marks were hanging over Bardy’s fitness until late in the day, he has been named on the bench. That pretty much ensures that the Clermont backrow will consist of Julien Bonnaire  and Alexandre Lapandry  on the flanks with Elvis Vermeulen  at No8, the same backrow that started against Leinster in the 2010 quarter-final in the RDS. It’s a very big, very physical backrow – Bonnaire and Vermeulen will be well known to Irish fans, and Lapandry is a legit 193cm [6’4”] – and with Bonnaire in place in the No6 jersey, they’ll have the edge at lineout time. This is a backrow built for mauling and close-in work, and might struggle at the breakdown further out.
Joe Schmidt has opted for his most attacking backrow, with Sean O’Brien  on the blindside, Jamie Heaslip  at No8 and Shane Jennings  on the openside. O’Brien’s switch to blindside, having played most of the season with No7 on his back, must have been made with the aim of better exploiting his remarkable ball carrying capabilities further away from the breakdown.
Jennings schooled Munster’s part-time openside Peter O’Mahony down in Thomond Park in the recent interpro, and with the experienced and teak-tough Vosloo out of the lineup, Joe Schmidt will be hoping that Jenno can do a similar job on the not-really-an-openside Clermont No7, Alexandre Lapandry.
The man to miss out, Kev McLaughlin , has had an excellent season for Leinster in terms of his workrate: the number of times he’s called on to truck up slow, garbagey ball and make it over the gainline has been impressive, and while we haven’t seen as many open-field bursts from him as we saw in his break-out season of 09-10, he’s probably a more important player for the team this year than he was back then.
Like van der Merwe, Jamie Heaslip was another Leinster player who put in a cracker of a performance in Leinster’s most recent Heineken Cup semi-final, and he bagged two tries and the Man of the Match award against Clermont in that 2010 quarter-final. His form hasn’t been the best this season, however, and if he’s not getting the business done in the first fifty minutes it could well be he that makes way for McLaughlin, with O’Brien moving to No8.
- Isaac Boss/Jonathan Sexton
- Morgan Parra/Brock James
Morgan Parra is a magnificent scrum-half: razor-sharp, quick, feisty, an exceptional place-kicker and a good enough general to start a World Cup final at outhalf. He can do it all on his best days, but he has a petulant streak in him that can upset his judgment and narrow his focus to winning personal battles. Isaac Boss can’t compete with Parra in terms of the range of his talents, but the New Zealand-born Irish international has a wonderful attitude to the game – he loves the contact, loves the jibber-jabber with his opposite number, gets the referee on his side and puts the ball out in front of his forwards for them to run on to with pace.
Jonathan Sexton has been the best outhalf in the competition by some distance, and has been the key player for Leinster thus far. What more can you say about him? He’s got a huge boot, kicks a great spiral, puts in big tackles, can nail drop goals from close to halfway, has an outside break than most centres would kill for and conducts a backline like Herbert von Karajan. He’s simply an absolutely cracking player at this level.
While Brock James had a marvellous game against Saracens in the quarter-final, he’s on the high-wire without a safety-net in Sunday’s game. Coming into the game early for Skrela meant that he probably wasn’t as keyed up with tension as he might have been were he named in the starting line-up, but with Skrela out injured for this fixture and only centre Regan King on the bench, he’s very much on his own for the semi-final. The Mole is confident that he won’t suffer from the same place-kicking yips that affected him in the quarter-final two years ago, but he’s still going to be up against a bigger, more physical opposite number in red-hot form … and that doesn’t do much for your confidence.
- Gordon D’Arcy/Brian O’Driscoll
- Wesley Fofana/Aurelien Rougerie
It’s difficult to reconcile the form Gordon D’Arcy has shown since his return to Leinster blue with the harried, mistake-prone figure he cut in the green of Ireland during the Six Nations. He’s not the player he was back in the Celtic Tiger era of 2004-07, when he had a winger’s pace to exploit the gaps that he made with his sidestep in the opposition line, but nor is he the guy who looked washed-up in Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
Brian O’Driscoll beat the medics’ timetable and was back not just in time for the Irish tour to New Zealand at the end of the summer, but for Leinster’s first game back after the Six Nations. The guy’s willpower, his dedication to a tedious rehabilitation process and his competitiveness is simply outstanding. O’Driscoll always shows up in big games and leaves his mark on them. With his shoulder and neck finally repaired, he’ll be unleashing all his hitting power on Aurelien Rougerie early in the game in a classic personal battle.
Rougerie is the figurehead of this Clermont team, and even when he has been in ordinary form for France he turns it on for les Jaunards. His partnership with Wesley Fofana has really blossomed this season, both for club and country, and the younger man forced his way into Philippe Saint-André’s starting XV largely through his Heineken Cup form before going on to light up the tournament with his four tries. The leinster midfield defense of Sexton, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll is very solid, but they’ll have to keep their wits and their concentration about them from whistle to whistle with Fofana on the pitch.
- Julien Malzieu/Sitiveni Sivivatu
- Luke Fitzgerald/ Isa Nacewa
Julien Malzieu shredded a rusty Shane Horgan back in the 2010 quarter-final, bagging a hat-trick of tries in an absolute cracker of a game. Horgan was just back from injury and looked all at sea, and Joe Schmidt – then Clermont’s backs coach – saw the opening and levered a huge number of points out of it. Malzieu is neither a predictable nor consistent player though, and can just as often be a spectator as a game-changer in big matches.
Sitiveni Sivivatu looked prematurely old and slow – used up, even – when he first arrived in Clermont from New Zealand, but playing a nice brand of rugby with a good team has rejuvenated him. He always had galloping pace rather than the electric quickness of his cousin Joe Rokocoko, and looks like he has prematurely lost a few yards; he’s not even thirty, but it’s seven years since he tore open the Lions defense in 2005, and that’s a long time for a winger. Still, he’s an unconventional and very physically strong winger who can cause you all sorts of trouble in the broken field, and Luke Fitzgerald will have his work cut out to tie him down. Fitz will need a big game, and he’ll need to stay focused on doing the small things right, rather than going for the low-percentage options. His hard tackling was a big feature of his game before his knee injury, and he’ll need to hit Sivivatu hard and get to grips with him every time he’s called on: the Fijian-born Kiwi only needs one slip and he’ll gobble up the yards.
Isa Nacewa has been confined to the wing by Rob Kearney’s magnificent form and Joe Schmidt’s efforts to appease Declan Kidney, but he brings an awful lot more to the table than any other winger in the Leinster set-up. The reigning IRUPA Player’s Player of the year, Nacewa has been one of the outstanding all-rounders in the Irish game since his arrival back in 2008. As well as being one of the most inventive attackers the province has ever seen [and that’s saying something from a side that has featured Felipe Contepomi and Brian O’Driscoll] he’s an incredibly hard-hitting tackler in defense and a rock-solid goalkicker.
- Robert Kearney
- Lee Byrne
Robert Kearney has been in absolutely outstanding form since returning from injury, and has quickly re-established himself as one of the most important players in Irish rugby. Recently names Leinster’s Players’ Player of the Year, the 2009 Test Lion has been in sparkling form in this tournament, touching down six tries in seven games so far. He brings huge confidence to the team with his unmatched aerial prowess, but it’s his self-confidence in attack that has been such a positive for Irish fans. He backs himself pretty much every time – just like Italian fullback Masi was doing in last year’s Six Nations when he had that white-hot run of form – and bursts through tackles in every counter-attack. He’s even learned how to pass!
When he was with the Ospreys back in the 2009-10 season, Lee Byrne showed Leinster fans just how could he could be with a faultless performance in the Magner’s League Grand Final. Byrne’s counter-attacking lines and finishing that day were out of the top drawer and it was he more than anybody who put paid to Leinster’s trophy chances on home soil. He has been out of favour with Warren Gatland since his move to Clermont, but his form has been consistently good, and his battle with Kearney – both of them Lions fullbacks in 2009 – will be a cracker.
Having dealt above with most of the forward substitutes, it really only remains to look at who each side has picked as their backline options. Leinster have gone with Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden in a classic three-man split that covers seven positions: redden is a dedicated scrum-half, while Madigan covers outhalf and fullback [though if Kearney is injured, Nacewa will most likely switch across], with McFadden covering the entire three-quarterline. While that might sound a big ask for the old Clongownian, he has actually played in three of those positions internationally, and the only one he in which he hasn’t is inside centre – the position he most regularly plays for his province.
Clermont have opted for the volatile Ivan Radoslajevic ahead of the more experienced Kevin Senio, with former All Black and Scarlet Regan King as centre cover and 20-year old prodigy Jean-Marcel Buttin as back three cover. Buttin was capped by Saint-André in France’s last game of the Six Nations against Wales and is an enormous nipper cast front the same mould as Julien Malzieu … except with skills. Yikes. King is a classic centre who was a big hit for the Scarlets in his years with them, and while he might have lost a yard of pace, he’s got all the right moves. Radoslajevic is something of a dark horse, but The Mole reckons that unless Brock James comes off and Parra moves to outhalf, he won’t see much time on the pitch.
Thar She Blows!
Frankly, it’s difficult to get past the last couple of semi-finals that Leinster were involved in in the tournament when you’re looking for indicators of how this one will go. In 2010 they travelled to Toulouse and were beaten by 10 points ; in 2011, Toulouse made the journey to Lansdowne Road and were beaten by 9 points. When you look at the teamsheets for those two games, they’re essentially identical on either side. Two teams, equally matched, and there’s a 19-point swing in the difference of a year and home advantage. Is Jonny Sexton that good, or does home advantage matter that much?
Leinster and Clermont were the two best teams at the start of the competition, and remain the two best teams left in the competition. They are very, very well-matched. Leinster recently forced a fifty-burger into the mouth of a not-far-from-full-strength Edinburgh in the RDS, and have beaten Ulster the last six times the provinces met [Ulster’s last win in the interprovincial fixture was an edgy 16-14 toss-up on 24 October 2009]. They’d be prohibitive favourites against either of the teams in the other semi.
Clermont are joint top on points with Toulouse in the Top 14, having won the same amount of matches, but lost less … go figure. They’re an absolute horse of a team – great coach, great fans, great stadium and great players. The Mole would pick them to do a job on Ulster were they to meet for the third time this season, and I genuinely can’t see a way that they wouldn’t murderize Edinburgh.
So, two more or less even teams go head to head – the kicker is that Clermont are on home soil, if not at home. This one will be tense, quality rugby with only a score between the teams at the end of the game.